Where would N.C. State be without Nyheim Hines?
For the Wolfpack and its fans, the answer isn’t pretty. By any standard, Hines was the play-breaking difference in wins over Pittsburgh, Boston College and, as of Saturday, North Carolina. His loss to injury left the Wolfpack offense foundering in the loss at Wake Forest.
And even if 8-4 isn’t the season N.C. State aspired to or hoped for – especially when 10 wins was so easily within reach and an Atlantic Division title shot not much farther off – it could have been worse, so much worse, without Hines, a player so fast he watches his long runs on the scoreboard to make sure no one’s catching up to him.
“Believe it or not,” Hines said, “I never feel like I’m running that fast.”
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If feels that way to everyone else. Hines scored on consecutive touches midway through the second half, the first from 54 yards at the end of the third quarter, the second from 48 at the beginning of the fourth, to break open what had been a tight, bitter, ugly, petty, scrappy and penalty-filled rivalry game and put N.C. State on the road to a 33-21 victory.
And not for the first time. Hines’ 83-yard touchdown run at Pittsburgh jump-started the N.C. State offense after a sluggish start; his 50-yard sprint in the fourth quarter at Boston College was the game-winner. In both of those games, he was at a minimum the catalyst for victory, if not the difference.
When N.C. State lost Hines at Wake Forest to a potential concussion last week, the Wolfpack offense withered without him. And there was no guarantee N.C. State would have him this week: He spent five days in the concussion protocol, not practicing – “It’s the most I’ve slept since I was a kid,” Hines said – before he was cleared to practice on Friday.
In his mind, there was never any doubt. A State fan from birth, he said it would take a broken limb to keep him from playing against North Carolina. He wore his prom outfit, a red tuxedo jacket with black lapels and trim, for the occasion, albeit minus the red bow tie.
And N.C. State would need him, not for the first time.
In the end, his production was as impressive as his explosiveness. It wasn’t just his knack for the big play at critical moments, but his game-in, game-out consistency when healthy. His 196 yards Saturday were the most ever by an N.C. State back against North Carolina, and they took him over 1,000 for the season and over 100 yards for the fifth time this year. Even without the two big runs, he would still have averaged a respectable 4.7 yards per carry. (With them, it was a robust 8.9 yards.)
“People say he’s a track star who plays football, but he’s a football player,” N.C. State receiver Jakobi Meyers said. “He’s a load. You’d never know a 5-9 guy can run like that.”
He took a beating in the early going Saturday, running inside, getting knocked around. But that’s all part of the plan, to wear the defense down, stretch it out, wait until a seam opens up. It took all but one minute of three quarters, and then it happened.
With N.C. State down 14-12, Hines got through the line … and he was gone. 19-14.
N.C. State quickly intercepted UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott to start the fourth quarter, started on the North Carolina 48, gave the ball to Hines … and he went the other way this time. 27-14.
North Carolina responded with an 11-play scoring drive, but after the kickoff, the Wolfpack gave the ball to Hines one more time … and he was stopped for a 6-yard gain.
Hines can’t always break a big run when N.C. State needs it most. It just feels that way sometimes.
“That’s what we expect out of him,” Meyers said. “When he does it, we’re just like, ‘Yep, that’s Nyheim.’ ”