Friedlander: Freshman quarterback, 'surreal' comeback keep hope alive for NC State
RALEIGH, N.C. – What’s it like being an NC State fan, you ask?
It’s an exercise best described by the immortal words of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III.
“Just when I thought I was out,” he says after realizing his attempt to leave the mafia and become a legitimate businessman has failed, “they pull me back in.”
The full range of those emotions were on display Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium during a 60-minute drama that featured more ups and down than a roller coaster at the recently concluded N.C. State Fair across the street.
There were plenty of reasons to give up hope.
Morale that was already lagging after the loss of quarterback Devin Leary and a pair of on-the-field defeats that ended the Wolfpack’s ACC championship hopes, dipped even lower as the game wore on and the home team fell farther behind.
But just as it seemed as though coach Dave Doeren’s team might not score another touchdown this season, let alone win another game, it found a way to pull its faithful back in again.
In the most unlikely fashion.
Freshman quarterback M.J. Morris came off the bench to throw the 1st 3 touchdown passes of his career during the final 17 minutes, wake up a slumbering offense and rally State from an 18-point deficit to a 22-21 victory Doeren called “kind of surreal.”
“We just kept playing,” the Wolfpack coach said after his team clinched bowl eligibility with its 6th win and 2nd this season decided by a single point.
“That’s 1 thing about NC State going back to Jimmy V. Never quit. I think that’s something our team has embraced and our university has embraced. That was a pretty special win tonight.”
It was a win that didn’t seem possible after the Hokies exploded for 3 touchdowns during the 3rd quarter to turn a 3-0 State halftime lead into what seemed at the time to be an insurmountable 21-3 advantage.
The Wolfpack had managed only 130 total yards and a single Christopher Dunn field goal to that point and had yet to score a touchdown in the nearly 9 quarters since Leary’s season-ending injury.
With nothing left to lose, Doeren and offensive coordinator Tim Beck finally decided it was time to stop trying to inch their way down the field with a series of screen passes and quarterback draws, and finally turn Morris loose.
And the untested youngster, who took over from an ineffective Jack Chambers late in the 1st half, delivered. Morris went 16-for-24 for 213 yards during the 2nd half while engineering drives of 75, 52 and 60 yards on State’s final 3 full possessions.
All of which ended in touchdowns.
— ACC Football (@ACCFootball) October 28, 2022
“We finally completed a downfield pass, over 20 yards, and I think that was like, ‘Hey, we can do this,’ ” Doeren said of the sudden offensive transformation. “We’d been dinking and dunking with throw, but once that happened, you could just feel it. That’s really all it takes sometimes, proof.”
Morris’ 1st scoring pass, a 35-yarder to Thayer Thomas with 1:42 left in the 3rd, might have been the turning point in Doeren’s eyes. The switch got flipped on the bench a few moments earlier, as far as his players are concerned.
“Grant Gibson usually doesn’t cuss or scream at us. He’s very quiet, but when he says something people listen,” Thomas said of State’s senior center and team captain. “He started cussing us out on the sideline. We needed that. I feel like that’s what sparked us. That really helped us turn it on.”
The spark didn’t just ignite the offense. A defense that got torched for 251 yards by the offensively challenged Hokies in the 3rd quarter also rose to the occasion by limiting Virginia Tech to minus-4 yards the rest of the way.
While the win might not have salvaged a season that was teetering precariously on the brink, it did at least guarantee the Wolfpack another postseason bowl trip. Morris’ breakout performance also provided some badly needed hope for the future.
Both immediate and long-term.
Thursday’s comeback was the Wolfpack’s biggest since overcoming a 27-point deficit against Maryland during 2011. But it was the 2nd epic rally they’ve produced during their past 2 home games. They scored 16 unanswered points after halftime to beat Florida State on Oct. 8.
Doeren attributed the come-from-behind efforts to his team’s grit and togetherness.
It’s going to take a lot more of that from here on out against to keep the momentum going and give State a shot at the 4 more victories it needs to accomplish its goal of a 10-win season – something that has been done only once in program history.
With a remaining schedule that includes games against high-scoring in-state rivals Wake Forest and North Carolina, sandwiched around dates against ACC Atlantic rivals Boston College and Louisville, it’s almost inevitable that there will be more low points before the season is over.
But it’s just as likely, given the Wolfpack’s history, that they will find a way to recover.
And pull their long-suffering fans right back in again.