There’s so much about Saturday’s season-opening win that N.C. State fans will want to forget. Here is one thing worth remembering: When Shadrach Thornton was given a chance to run with the ball, everything else fell into place.
The Wolfpack flirted with disaster Saturday, with so much of the damage self-inflicted. Whether it was the refusal to turn the keys to the running game over to Thornton until the second half, the defense’s inability to stop the Georgia Southern option until it was almost too late or the recurrence of some of last season’s hard-to-fathom play-calling, N.C. State did just about everything it could to make things interesting.
And interesting it was, with the Wolfpack needing three second-half touchdowns from Jacoby Brissett, including the game-winner with 97 seconds to play, to secure a 24-23 victory and an inestimable sense of relief.
“A lot of disappointing things,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “But the beauty of football is it’s a four-quarter game.”
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The Wolfpack unquestionably won the fourth. Brissett, the highly touted Florida transfer making his N.C. State debut, was erratic in the first half but settled in once Thornton, who had only four first-half carries, was given more responsibility midway through the third quarter with the Wolfpack down 10.
“I had a good chance to get into more rhythm than the first half,” Thornton said. “I guess you could say that.”
While he was stuffed on a direct snap on 4th-and-1 at the Georgia Southern 9-yard line – Doeren decided against a field goal and ran the same play that saw Brandon Mitchell stuffed countless times last season, a doubly questionable decision that nearly cost the Wolfpack dearly – Thornton was the only N.C. State running back able to get through the line on a regular basis.
Thornton still only had six second-half carries, but broke runs of 6, 7 and 27 yards at key moments as N.C. State largely avoided third-down situations in the second half.
“That’s kind of what we were talking about at halftime,” Doeren said. “Those runs were there in the first half and we weren’t breaking tackles. We were getting hit for a 4-yard gain. Shad did a good job finishing runs in the second half.”
With Thornton grinding out yardage, the Wolfpack was able to push the tempo against a tiring Georgia Southern team that had so many players cramp up that Doeren, after the game, actually accused them of faking injuries to slow down the Wolfpack. While Brissett waved to the sideline to call plays faster, the N.C. State offensive line opened big holes that Thornton, of N.C. State’s backs, was best able to exploit.
“They couldn’t get set,” Brissett said. “The offensive line was coming back telling me, ‘Jacoby, we just need to go fast, because it’s easy for us to block them when they’re not ready.’ That’s what we did.”
Thornton finished with 73 yards on 10 carries. Matt Dayes and Tony Creecy combined for 65 yards on 14 carries, although. Dayes ended up catching the game-winning touchdown.
Brissett was 8-for-9 as the Wolfpack went 75 yards on nine players with no margin for error, mostly short passes until Dayes slipped open on a wheel route down the right sideline. Brissett dropped the ball into his hands, a very memorable finish to what was otherwise a mostly forgettable opening to the season.
“Honestly, I forgot all about the first half,” Brissett said.
The Wolfpack will take the win, gladly, and leave most of this one behind. If nothing else, it should remember this going forward: The Wolfpack played its best football with Thornton carrying the load.