With a nearly miraculous catch and a breathtaking punt return, N.C. State wrestled control from North Carolina in a rivalry game for the ages Saturday afternoon at Kenan Stadium.
Owen Spencers catch of a deflected, fourth-down pass in the end zone cut into a nine-point deficit. T.J. Grahams 87-yard sprint down the sideline for a punt return score gave the Wolfpack the lead for good in a 29-25 N.C. State win with implications in the rivalry and beyond.
N.C. States seniors left the field knowing theyll never lose a game to the Tar Heels. Coach Tom OBrien improved to 4-0 at N.C. State against counterpart Butch Davis.
After completing a school-record 33 passes for 411 yards, gritty Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates left the field disappointed on his senior day. Most importantly, perhaps, N.C. State (8-3, 5-2 ACC) earned an opportunity to play next week for a spot in the ACC championship game.
A win on Saturday at Maryland would put the Wolfpack in the Dec. 4 conference title game in Charlotte.
This was a two-fer, OBrien said. We beat Carolina. And we got the opportunity to win a championship.
Thanks to a marvelous performance from Yates, who broke the school records for passing yards in a season and a career, North Carolina led 19-10 late in the third quarter. The advantage could have larger, but the N.C. State defense stiffened four times to hold the Tar Heels (6-5, 3-4) to Casey Barth field goals.
"When you're kicking field goals, instead of scoring touchdowns, you know it's going to catch up to you eventually," said North Carolina offensive tackle Mike Ingersoll.
The turning point came on fourth-and-goal at the 2, when N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson was chased out of the pocket. Sprinting to his right, he lofted a pass into a crowd at the back of the end zone.
Safety DaNorris Seary batted the ball away from wide receiver Darrell Davis, who was out of bounds at the back of the end zone. The ball caromed into Spencers hands for the touchdown.
When he threw it up, I was like, something crazy is going to happen, Spencer said. Everybodys jumping. . . .Something is going to end up crazy. He ended up tipping it right to me.
After Audie Cole and Earl Wolff recorded two of N.C. States seven sacks of Yates, North Carolina punted. Graham caught C.J. Feagles kick at the 13-yard line and rocketed up the sideline in front of the Wolfpack bench.
Graham, who won a state track championship with a time of 10.44 seconds in the 100 meters for Wakefield High, said he felt the wind in his ears as he ran to open space. He said he also felt the air go out of the stadium.
The score gave N.C. State its first lead at 24-19 with 14 minutes, 7 seconds remaining.
A punt return for a touchdown is almost always a back breaker and something that is extraordinarily difficult to overcome, Butch Davis said.
The Tar Heels had a chance to tie the game after a Josh Czajkowski field goal stretched N.C. States lead to 27-19. Yates passed 1 yard to Christian Wilson for a touchdown with 1:05 remaining. Trailing 27-25, Yates rolled to his right on a two-point conversion attempt. His pass into the end zone was deflected incomplete by safety Earl Wolff.
After recovering two onside kicks and sacking Yates for a safety in the closing seconds, N.C. State was one win from the ACC championship game, with local bragging rights to enjoy as well.
Spencer said he couldnt wait to get back home and call Tar Heel senior Kendric Burney, a friend he has played football with since middle school.
We all grew up together, Spencer said. Playing ball. Going to school together. Family. Cousins. All that goes into a rivalry game. You know when you get old, when you sit down at your house with your family and friends, and other teammates, youll say, We beat yall. Four times.
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