N.C. State needed more than its “very angry” version to beat Ball State.
The Wolfpack used a pair of key special teams plays to hold off the Mid-American Conference foe 34-23 on Saturday night.
After a road loss to West Virginia last Saturday, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren promised a “very angry” version of his team this week. The Wolfpack (3-1) looked eager enough to atone for last week’s mistakes in the first half as it built a 20-7 lead.
Then some of the problems on offense from the WVU loss resurfaced in the second half and the Cardinals (1-3) kept hanging around. Ryan Rimmler made three field goals in the second half and it was 27-16 before Max Fisher blocked a punt with 10:05 in the fourth quarter.
Malik Dunlap returned the blocked punt to the Ball State 7-yard line. Two plays later, Matt McKay rushed for a 3-yard touchdown.
N.C. State’s only other touchdown in the second half was a 76-yard punt return by receiver Thayer Thomas. The Wolfpack had five first downs and only completed two passes in the second half.
“I feel like special teams in the second half really won us the game,” Thomas said.
Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt threw for 333 yards and the Cardinals out-scored the Wolfpack in the second half. They led 7-3 on Justin Hall’s 11-yard touchdown run at 5:28 in the first quarter before N.C. State’s offense got going.
Ricky Person (3 yards) and McKay (5 yards) had short touchdown runs in the first half. McKay was pulled for a series in the second quarter for Bailey Hockman.
After Hockman had a pass intercepted (which was tipped first by his receiver), McKay came back in and completed 10 of his next 13 passes for 127 yards. McKay finished 17 of 30 for 175 yards. McKay only completed one (of eight attempts) in the second half. Hockman came back in the fourth quarter for the final series.
Doeren said Bailey’s first-half series was by design.
“We had planned on that all week,” Doeren said. “Regardless of what happened on his drive, Matt was going to go back in. It was just an opportunity to see (Hockman) when it wasn’t mop-up duty. I think it sparked Matt a little bit.”
Freshman running back Jordan Houston averaged 9.2 yards per carry. He had six rushes for 55 yards, all in the fourth quarter. He also caught a screen pass for 15 yards to convert on a key third-down on the final drive.
Sophomore receiver Thayer Thomas turned a unique hat trick with a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter. Thomas threw for a touchdown and caught one in last week’s loss at West Virginia. Thomas finished Saturday’s game with four catches for 51 yards.
After spending the week talking about cleaning up correctable mistakes, N.C. State had two procedural penalties and a dropped pass on its opening drive. For the second straight week, N.C. State had nine penalties.
“We did enough to win but still too many penalties,” Doeren said.
Defensive end James Smith-Williams (ankle) missed his second straight game and cornerback Nick McCloud (knee) missed his third straight game. Tight end Dylan Autenrieth, who was banged up in the West Virginia game, did not play, either.
Then freshman running back Bam Knight tweaked a hamstring in the second quarter and didn’t play in the second half.
“We’re missing a lot of guys and then Bam went out a hamstring so he didn’t play,” Doeren said. “We’re missing some key parts right now.”
19-1 Doeren’s record against Mid-American Conference opponents. He was 17-1 in two seasons at Northern Illinois. His first N.C. State team beat Central Michigan in 2013.
22 N.C. State went 22 games without a special teams touchdown. Nyheim Hines had a 92-yard punt return for a TD at Pittsburgh in 2017.