CARTER-FINLEY STADIUM/RALIEGH - Everything had been going about as well as you could expect for a team that was winless in ACC play. The struggling defense picked off a pass on its first play to set up a short field and a two-play touchdown strike.
Sure, Maryland answered with a touchdown of its own of the next drive, but Russell Wilson responded with a 35-yard toss to a streaking Donald Bowens. The defense forced a three and out on the Terrapins next possession. The Wolfpack had momentum and a 14-7 lead on their side.
Then came the type of move that fans applaud when its made and second-guess for an entire off season after it fails. The Wolfpack had just executed a textbook pooch punt, pinning Maryland inside the 10 yard line, but a Terrapin bumped into N.C. State punter Jeff Ruiz. Head Coach Tom O'Brien made an aggressive decision to accept the 5-yard penalty and go for it on 4th and 6 from the Maryland 33 yard line. Boy did it backfire. Wilson's pass was snatched in the flats by Maryland linebacker Alex Wujack, who chugged 70 yards for a score. It was the first interception returned for a touchdown by Ralph Friedgen's club in more than three years.
Such is life for this Wolfpack team that went winless in October and rode a four-game losing streak into this Homecoming weekend contest. It would have been easy to fold, and a lesser team would've. But somehow, someway, N.C. State was able to put one in the win column, a 38-31 victory that went down to the final snap.
Don't get it wrong, though. It was not pretty at all. Clem Johnson muffed a punt. The once interception-free Wilson threw two more picks in the game, including one in the end zone with less than a minute left in the first half that cost N.C. State an easy field goal, at least. They gave up an 82-yard touchdown return to Torrey Smith, letting Maryland back into the game in the third quarter after stretching the lead to 31-21 with a long touchdown drive.
None of that really matters now, though. A win is a win, and this was a team that'll sure take no matter the details.
"Well, we certaintly don't do anything easily, but that's a heck of a win for our football team," O'Brien said.
No one seemed to really care that this victory came against a Maryland squad that's now rididng a four-game losing streak of its own, and one that's now a dreadful 2-7 on the year.
As one sportswriter pointed out in the press box, "Everyone who covers N.C. State picked Maryland to win, and everyone who covers Maryland picked N.C. State to win." (It's not entirely true, I did pick the Wolfpack myself, but you get the idea.) These teams are bottom feeders in a weak league with problems up and down the depth chart and field.
Still, N.C. State's much-maligned defense played better today. Part of it had to do with Maryland's starting quarterback, Chris Turner, getting knocked out of the game with an MCL injury in the second quarter, but the defense did tackle better, and only gave up 17 points (the interception and kickoff returns accounting for the other 14).
O'Brien joked that it's been so long since the Wolfpack's last vitory that the players didn't really know how to celebrate. The team did jump in unison on the 50 yard line after defensive end Michael Lemon blew up Maryland quarterback Jamarr Robinson on consecutive plays to close out the contest. What a relief.
"I don't think I'll pull a Pittsburgh on them," O'Brien joked, referencing his message after the team's last win, when he told them they weren't a good team. "After what we did in October, we're just desperate to win football games."
Now this team that looked all but dead can hold a slim chance of gaining bowl eligibility. They'd still need to win out, beating Clemson, Virginia Tech and UNC to end the season, but at least there's still hope.
"We're getting better and making plays," Johnson said. "We've faced adversity and it shows what kind of moxy we have. Our season definitely isn't over yet. We're still fighting."