Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, large colonies of purple broke the sea of red and black that formed the bulk of Carter-Finley Stadium’s sell-out crowd of nearly 60,000. No section or ceremony seemed sacred, either: Mutual tailgates were cloaked by those in bright red and bright purple. Shocks of purple appeared among the student seats. The elevators leading to the luxury boxes of Vaughn Towers hosted good-hearted (and often well-lubed) arguments between fans of both persuasions.
Driven by an intense, raucous, history, N.C. State’s 26-game rivalry with East Carolina remains one of the strongest and most peculiar in this state. The mixing between the universities seems unique among the larger schools in the state. Though ECU is a decent interstate jaunt from the Triangle, its rivalry with N.C. State seems fueled more by a propinquity of spirit. Though each school has several fine academic programs in its own right, neither school is among the nation’s perennial academic elite, unlike their western neighbors in blue. It’s a less catty fight than State’s battles with UNC-Chapel Hill, and it’s less self-deprecating than State’s more recent ventures versus Duke. I recognized this when my older brother played football at ECU before he attended State and again when I went to State myself: The students of the school’s are slightly kindred spirits, and that drives intercollegiate romances (co-ed Pirates and Wolves walked arm in arm today) just as much as it does athletic hatred. They love to torment each other.
Saturday’s 30-24 N.C. State victory against ECU in either team’s first overtime game of the year worked to bolster that rivalry: East Carolina, of course, came in as the heavyweights, ranked No. 15 in the nation and sporting a 3-0 record that included wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia. N.C. State’s 1-2 record included a 34-0 season opening ass-handing courtesy of University of South Carolina and a decisive 9-27 loss in Clemson’s Death Valley. Shoulda been easy.
Early on, it looked like the day may carry on as expected: Defensive back Van Eskridge intercepted a first quarter pass from Harrison Beck, toting it the 23 yards into the end zone. But a battle-back approach marked N.C. State’s entire day. After stopping East Carolina on the Wolfpack one-yard line late in the game, N.C. State could only punt away in short order. ECU eventually kicked a field goal. N.C. State answered with the tying touchdown. The Wolfpack nearly lost a beautiful interception to what was at first ruled a fumble but eventually overturned. But most telling was quarterback Russell Wilson’s performance after Beck’s interception. Wilson met the challenge, ultimately completing 21 of 31 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. ECU’s Pierre Bell was in his face early and often, but Wilson responded smartly, falling only once to a sack, throwing out of pressure reasonably well and rushing for 42 yards. Wilson linked well with halfback Jamelle Eugene through the air, too, and his five completions to replacement tight end Greg Bryan for 58 yards—including the five yards that let N.C. State tie it with 72 seconds remaining in the fourth—drove the team.
For N.C. State, the win means more than pushing the balance to 16-10 against ECU, though that certainly matters, too. Rather, for a team with a hitherto losing record and whose injuries are most likely deeper than its roster (Nate Irving, who entered the game as the team’s leading defenseman, left early with a leg injury), it means a chance to build a decent record before leaving the comfort of Carter-Finley again. The Wolfpack plays its next three games at home, and though the competition isn’t slight (South Florida, Boston College, Florida State), it’s at least conceivable that N.C. State could leave Raleigh next with a winning record. After all, with its victory against ECU in Greenville last year, N.C. State hit a four-game win streak that brought its record to an even 5-5.
If the Wolfpack could hit a similar streak on the heels of this victory, it would be a monumental break for an athletic program largely on the skids. As Caulton Tudor pointed out in an excellent online column Thursday, “These are dark days for State. To say otherwise is to disregard scoreboards, which are the first and ultimately, the final, measure of popularity.” Saturday’s win was a testament to perseverance, both on the parts of the fans and of the team, pests that wouldn’t let the Pirates walk away with it Saturday.
“We’re playing hard, and we’re learning how to play hard,” Tom O’Brien said in the locker room after the game. “It’s the only way we can win right now.” O’Brien began the press conference by admitting this is the first time he’s seen his team play four intense quarters. At least they picked the right day to do it.