For the second week in a row, most of the good things by N.C. State’s offense happened in the first half. But N.C. State got enough special teams help to beat Ball State 34-23 on Saturday night.
Five key plays in the Wolfpack (3-1) win:
1. Effective blitz
Score: Ball State 7, N.C. State 6
Time: 10:39, second quarter
Field position: third-and-6 at the Ball State 23
N.C. State’s defense struggled to get any kind of consistent pressure on West Virginia last week. There were a couple of different reasons for that and the continued absence of defensive end James Smith-Williams doesn’t help.
Down 7-6 early in the second quarter, N.C. State turned the ball over on an interception by Bailey Hockman (on a pass that should have been caught by receiver Tabari Hines).
Ball State wasn’t able to capitalize on the turnover. On third-and-6, N.C. State sent linebackers Louis Acceus and Isaiah Moore on a blitz up the middle and they were able to get to Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt before he even had a chance to throw.
The nine-yard loss pushed Ball State back to its own 14-yard and the subsequent punt set N.C. State’s offense up with a short field.
2. More Tabari Hines
Score: Ball State 7, N.C. State 6
Time: 8:39, second quarter
Field position: second-and-4 at the Ball State 33
N.C. State’s offense kind of ignored Hines, the graduate transfer receiver, in the loss at West Virginia. He had three targets and two catches against WVU.
N.C. State tried to get Hines was more involved, at least in the first half. All four of Hines’ targets came in the first half.
He dropped Hockman’s pass which ended up being an interception. On the next series, they drew up a trick play -- with Thayer Thomas throwing him a pass but it was incomplete.
When Matt McKay came back in for Hockman, he led a eight-play, 55-yard touchdown drive. McKay’s best throw on the drive was on a rollout to Hines near the Ball State sideline for a 19-yard pickup.
McKay struggled in the second half (1 of 8, 1 yard) but was his best during this drive and the subsequent TD drive when he connected on 7 of 8 passes for 88 yards and pushed N.C. State’s lead to 20-7.
3. Feeding Emezie
Score: N.C. State 13, Ball State 7
Time: 1:54, second quarter
Field position: first-and-10 at the Ball State 19
After receiver Emeka Emezie had 23 targets against West Virginia, and a career-high 12 catches for 103 yards, there was more variation in the passing distribution against Ball State.
Emezie had an up-and-down night with four catches on seven targets for 47 yards. He had a spectacular one-handed catch in the first quarter but also had two dropped passes in the third quarter.
On this drive, Emezie caught a strike from McKay, in between cornerback Antonio Phillips and safety Bryce Cosby for a 14-yard gain.
This play was notable for both how well McKay threw the ball down the field and that it was off of a run/pass option read. McKay mostly struggled with those RPO decisions in the loss at WVU.
Emezie’s catch set up a 5-yard touchdown run by McKay, on an option read, on the next play.
4. Special-teams redemption
Score: N.C. State 27, Ball State 16
Time: 10:11, fourth quarter
Field position: fourth-and-19 at the Ball State 39
N.C. State’s special teams needed to make up a mistake in the WVU loss. The Wolfpack had a punt blocked by WVU that led to a touchdown.
This time, N.C. State’s special teams came up with the block. After McKay’s first interception of the season, the Cardinals had a chance, down 27-16, to put real game-pressure on the Wolfpack.
Instead, N.C. State’s defense got a sack from nickel Tyler Baker-Williams and then got some help when running back Walter Fletcher dropped a pass.
On fourth down, sophomore receiver Max Fisher broke through the Ball State protection and got his left hand on Nathan Snyder’s punt at the Ball State 29.
The ball bounced off the ground to freshman cornerback Malik Dunlap, who picked it up at the 17 and returned it to the 7-yard line.
Two plays later, McKay punched in another short touchdown run for a 34-16 cushion.
5. A primary concern
Score: N.C. State 34, Ball State 23
Time: 3:47, fourth quarter
Field position: third-and-5 at the N.C. State 15
N.C. State’s secondary has had its share of struggles the past three years (the Wolfpack ranked No. 108 against the pass last season). Plitt ended up with 333 yards (on 57 attempts) but did not have a touchdown.
“We’ve got to cover better,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “We’ve just got to make plays when the ball is there.”
Cornerback Chris Ingram did come up with a game-sealing play in the end zone. Plitt tried to give receiver Hassan Littles a jump ball near the sideline.
N.C. State linebacker Calvin Hart was able to turn his head at the last second and break up the pass. He deflected it and cornerback Chris Ingram was there to pick up the scraps for the interception.