RALEIGH — There are two versions of the N.C. State football team, coach Tom O'Brien admitted Saturday, the "good" one and the "bad" one.
Both versions have appeared during an uneven 2011 season, so it was fitting that both showed up for Saturday's regular-season finale against Maryland. There was the one that fell behind by 27 points in the second half and the one that pulled off the biggest comeback in school history for a wild 56-41 win at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Junior linebacker Terrell Manning argued there is a third version of the Wolfpack (7-5), which clinched its third bowl game in four years with the remarkable comeback.
"The great one," Manning said. "You have to be to score 42 straight points."
That is what N.C. State did. Quarterback Mike Glennon threw for five touchdowns, and ran for another to lead the Wolfpack back from a 41-14 hole. The defensive pressure, which dominated Clemson and North Carolina earlier this month on the same field, forced three turnovers that helped State produce 42 straight points to save its season and set up a bowl trip.
Charlotte, for the Belk Bowl on Dec. 27, is the likely postseason destination for the Wolfpack, which started 2-3. The Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas and the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. are also possibilities.
"When this football team was 2-3, there weren't a lot of people that believed we could win five of the next seven games," O'Brien said.
He added that a lot of people had the same thoughts in third quarter of Saturday's game, especially given the Wolfpack's history against Maryland, which finished the season 2-10.
Bitter losses to Maryland have been an all too familiar ending to the Wolfpack's seasons in recent years. Prior to Saturday's game, Maryland had won four of five games against the Wolfpack, and eight of 11 going back to Philip Rivers' freshman season. Last season, with the division title on the line for the Wolfpack, Maryland won at home 38-31. In '07, a 37-0 shutout kept O'Brien's first team out of a bowl game.
That history entered the minds of the N.C. State players when it trailed 41-14 with 10 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
"I was thinking, Maryland's going to get us again," said Manning, who forced two fumbles and recovered a third. "And ruin everything - again."
The 27-point comeback, which bested the Wolfpack's biggest previous comeback, a 24-pointer by the 2000 team in the MicronPC.com Bowl against Minnesota, started with a trickle but ended in an avalanche. Glennon hit Tobais Palmer on a 6-yard touchdown pass with 5:57 remaining in the third quarter to make it 41-21. A key fumble on Maryland's next possession, by Davin Meggett at Maryland's 26, is when O'Brien started to think the win was possible.
"From that point on, we were rolling," O'Brien said.
Running back Tony Creecy started a 35-point fourth quarter with an 11-yard touchdown catch from Glennon at 14:56.
After Earl Wolff returned an interception from State's 8-yard line to State's 48, Glennon capped a scoring drive with a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line.
James Washington followed with a 1-yard touchdown run on State's next drive to put State ahead for good, 42-41 with 7:08 left.
Following a three-and-out by Maryland, State put together an eight-play, 57-yard drive capped by George Bryan's 7-yard touchdown catch with 2:18 remaining to make it 49-41.
On Maryland's ensuing drive, cornerback C.J. Wilson returned an interception by Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown 59 yards to put the game out of reach.
"It was easy," Manning joked.
Saturday's game began disastrously with three fumbles in a span of 3:59 which led to Maryland's first 14 points, including a 66-yard fumble return by cornerback Dexter McDougle.
Maryland's defense added an interception return for a touchdown by safety A.J. Hendy to go up 28-7 with 8:11 remaining in the second quarter. Kevin Dorsey tacked on a 24-yard touchdown catch to make it 34-14 at the half.
The start prompted O'Brien to tell his team at the half: "The bad team, the first half is over. Let's get the good guys back out there and play the second half."
Good, bad and in between, it all added up to a crazy game and a memorable bowl-clinching win for the Wolfpack.