For the first time in a long time, NC State showed off the full strength of its stout linebacking corps Saturday night at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Linebacker Payton Wilson, arguably the Pack’s best defensive player, started the game. And more importantly he finished it, as the Wolfpack beat Texas Tech 27-14.

That’s something that hasn’t happened often for Wilson, who exited the Wolfpack’s first game of the season against East Carolina during the 1st half and then didn’t play against Charleston Southern. In 2021, Wilson played limited snaps in the Wolfpack’s opener against South Florida, and then he suffered a season-ending injury in the Pack’s 2nd game against Mississippi State.

The year before, Wilson went down during the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech and missed the Gator Bowl. To find the last time Wilson played a full game for the Wolfpack, you have to go back to a Nov. 28, 2020, win at Syracuse.

That was until Saturday night, when Wilson played from start to finish against the Red Raiders and led the Wolfpack with 10 tackles. He was all over the field all night, a sight for sore eyes for Pack fans.

“He was so happy just now in the locker room,” coach Dave Doeren said. “I’m super happy for him. It was great having him. Seeing his speed in the open field tracking guys down, it’s just different. Having him and Isaiah [Moore] and Drake [Thomas], it’s what we hoped for. It’s a huge, huge deal. I think the whole locker room is super happy for Payton. He was ear-to-ear smiling downstairs.”

As Doeren mentioned, Wilson finally got a chance to play a full game alongside Moore and Thomas. The Wolfpack’s headline trio on defense is great on paper, but they haven’t actually gotten the opportunity to hit the field together many times.

But against the Red Raiders they did, and the results were dazzling.

The Pack limited the Red Raiders to just 54 rushing yards, and it lived in Texas Tech’s backfield. NC State had 7 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and 10 QB hurries. Moore, Wilson and Thomas had 2 TFLS, 4 QB hurries and a sack between them, as NC State’s defensive front utterly dominated Texas Tech’s.

“I really love playing with the guys,” Wilson said. “It means the world to me to get back out there and compete with them and play with them. We’ve built such a great bond here. It’s awesome. It’s truly awesome.”

That bond has been built over years, and it’s one that wasn’t necessarily expected to still be around in 2022. But with the injuries to both Wilson and Moore and NC State’s feeling of unfinished business, all 3 players decided to return despite NFL potential for all of them.

But with Wilson sidelined through the first 2 games of the season, things weren’t exactly how the group envisioned they would be. This season offered a chance to actually play together again, for more than just a game, but so far the All-ACC-caliber trio had less than a half together.

That was, of course, until Saturday night, when they linked up and dominated another Power 5 team for all 4 quarters. The band finally is back together for the Wolfpack, and the music is loud in Raleigh.

“We’ve talked about this for so long,” Wilson said. “We haven’t been able to be healthy. Us three being out there, we truly think that we are the best three linebackers in the country. If you try to run the ball, well good luck to you.”