N.C. State wasn’t losing early in the fourth quarter, neither was Notre Dame, but Hurricane Matthew was definitely winning.
The rain and wet field made offense nearly impossible. So it only made sense a special teams play would break a fourth-quarter tie and decide the game.
And it was Pharoah McKever who saved N.C. State. Again.
The junior tight end’s punt block, scooped up by safety Dexter Wright and returned for a touchdown, lifted N.C. State to a 10-3 rain-soaked win over Notre Dame on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
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Matthew’s constant rain spoiled any sense of celebration on the 50th anniversary of the first game at Carter-Finley Stadium.
The field was drenched, and the fans, about 30,000 who braved the elements, were soaked for three quarters. After 10 fumbles and countless other muffs and weather-related mistakes, it looked the team who made the last mistake would lose.
McKever, a little-used tight end, came up with just the play N.C. State (4-1) needed to improve to 2-0 against the Fighting Irish (2-4).
“He’s always got one or two crazy plays that really change the momentum of the game each year,” Wright said of McKever. “It was bound to happen. I’m glad it happened now. I hope he has a couple of more before the season ends.”
It was McKever who delivered coach Dave Doeren his first ACC win in 2014 at Syracuse with an 82-yard interception return for a touchdown.
This time, the 6-foot-6 McKever bull-rushed Notre Dame’s up back Nic Weishar and got his right hand up and got a piece of Tyler Newsome’s punt at 12:43 in the fourth quarter.
Wright picked up the ball at the 16-yard line, bobbled it once and then controlled it long enough to get a key block from McKever, and score the game’s lone touchdown.
“I’m an all-around player,” said McKever, who has played both sides of the ball in his career at N.C. State. “Wherever they need me, throw me in there, and I’ll do my best to make a play.”
McKever was a defensive end when he had the key interception at Syracuse. He had an 82-yard touchdown catch in the Wolfpack’s bowl loss last year after moving to tight end.
Snaps have been scarce this season, he had only played on seven in the first four games before Saturday. So before the bye week, McKever said he texted Doeren and asked him if there were any spots on special teams.
Doeren thought McKever’s size could help against teams who like to use a rugby-style punt. McKever actually ended up making his block on what was supposed to be set up as a return.
“When my number is called, I have to step up and take advantage of the opportunity,” McKever said.
As you would expect under a steady downpour from kickoff through the final whistle, offense was scarce for both sides. N.C. State actually fumbled six times, recovering four of them, while Notre Dame had four fumbles, getting two back.
Notre Dame finished with 117 total yards on 63 plays. Quarterback DeShone Kizer entered the game with an average of 313.4 passing yards per game. He finished 9-of-26 for 54 yards with an interception.
The Wolfpack defense sacked Kizer five times, three by defensive end Bradley Chubb.
N.C. State could only piece together 198 yards of total offense, about 300 yards less than its average on the season, but ran for 157 yards. Matt Dayes finished with 126 yards on 23 carries.
The Wolfpack led 3-0 at the half, after a 38-yard field goal by Kyle Bambard, but Notre Dame tied the score with a 40-yard field goal by Justin Yoon at 11:04 in the third quarter.
N.C. State drove all the way down to Notre Dame’s 3-yard line late in the third quarter but squandered a chance to break the tie.
It looked like Hurricane Matthew, the elements and the Irish would get the best of the Wolfpack. McKever, the defense and N.C. State’s offensive line just wouldn’t let it happen.
“I think our guys really, really wanted to win that game, and we found a way to win,” Doeren said.