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Breaking down the best NC State football drive in years

This was epic stuff

North Carolina State v Pittsburgh Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

*Warning, there is an excessive amount of gifs in this post, but I am in no way on the level of no23sports.*

Before we move on to the next game, I wanted to take some time to acknowledge how unique that end of game drive that Devin Leary led. This seems like the type of thing we should be able to count on from a starting quarterback, but unfortunately we have not seen it that often.

As Joe Giglio pointed out, “that was NC State’s first ACC win by scoring a touchdown in the final minute on its final possession since 2012.” Mike Glennon to Bryan Underwood vs Florida State on Oct. 6, 2012. And as Alec said, NC State was only 1-9 from 2016-2018 in game-tying/winning situations under five minutes.

Doing this on the road (albeit no fans) against a ranked team and top 5 defense nationally can not be understated. We all hope this is a sign of more to come. I’m sure there will continue to be frustrating moments, let’s just hope they’re outweighed by more moments like this:

To set the stage, Pitt executed a 13 play, 75 yard drive eating up 6:32 off the clock. Down by 1 point, Pitt scored on 3rd and goal. Had they been stopped there, they likely would have kicked a field goal, only putting them up 2. In that scenario, a Chris Dunn field goal could have won the game. Just before that play they call timeout and here is their win probability:

As we all know, Pitt does score on that play, but fails the ensuing 2 point conversion. The score is now 24-29. A touchdown is needed to win.

Pitt kicks the ball short of the endzone, and Bam Knight returns it to the NC State 21 yard line. Drive starts here. ALSO: NC STATE IS OUT OF TIMEOUTS FOR THIS WHOLE DRIVE.

1st & 10, 1:38 remaining, NC State 21 yd line

1st & 10, 1:38 remaining

Devin Leary identifies Pitt showing pressure and finds Emeka Emezie (more on him later) for a 5 yard throw that Emezie stretches to 10 yards. 1st down, State.

Emezie 1st down

1st & 10, 1:33 remaining, NC State 31 yd line

Pitt again showing pressure:

But end up only rushing four. Leary has his eyes on Cary Angeline, causing the defense to hedge towards him.

Even though Pitt only rushes four, the pocket immediately collapses. Leary identifies this and smartly steps up. When Leary looked off Angeline, the defense started moving towards him, this opened up Thayer Thomas. Both Thomas and Angeline run good routs, right around the first down marker. Leary steps up to avoid pressure and gets it to Thayer for 9 yards:

I would think Thayer thought he was just past the first down marker because he fell to the ground instead of working up for the extra yard.

2nd & 1, 1:15 remaining, NC State 40 yd line

The Wolfpack line up quickly. They mostly went no-huddle for this drive. Pitt rushes 5 but the Pack contain:

In the 4 WR setup, all 4 receivers lined up in the same positions as the last play. This time, rather than running 9-10 yards, Angeline finds a pocket in the zone further down field. Leary throws an absolute dart for a 22 yard gain. The pass is so well timed we need to see it in motion:

With all respect to what Bailey Hockman has done, this is where Devin Leary succeeds where he didn’t. Downfield throws, on time and on target. That pass needs to be right there when Angeline cuts. Under or over throw it and it’s a pick, with defenders on either side. First down, Wolfpack.

1st & 10, 1:02 remaining, Pitt 38 yd line

After 3 straight pass completions, Pitt now starts to defend for the pass. This play only has a 3 man front. State switches and lines up in double wides left with Angeline on the line.

Although Pitt only showed 3 man rush they used a delayed blitz to get pressure. They do get pressure because Ricky Person completely whiffs the block. Leary calmly takes a step back and gets the pass off, disaster averted.

Pick play. Emezie slants right towards the defender and this gives Thomas the opening to cross left and find an opening. 6 yard gain. 4 straight pass completions. No runs at all so far on this drive. No time for that. This is a designed play towards the sideline to get out of bounds and stop the clock.

2nd & 4, 0:54 remaining, Pitt 32 yd line

NC State is now in field goal range. Remember that 3rd & goal play? Would have been useful right about now, but Leary and co. made sure it wouldn’t matter.

False start. One of Emezie’s few mistakes in this game. He was itching to go and jumped the gun. Back it up 5 yards.

This might have been okay, because Pitt looked like they were stacking the line to rush 6.

2nd & 9, 0:54 remaining, Pitt 37 yd line

Pitt comes back with the same formation. They show 6 and rush 5. Now these are the situations that pre-Tim Beck would be a surefire running play. Even in this type of crunch-time situation, we’ve seen it before. One thing fans have been looking to see is to take a shot down field. Beck does that here, putting Devin Carter on a go-route.

This was Leary’s first incompletion on this drive. I’m torn on the catchability of this ball. It was coming in hot, could have used an ounce more touch on it, and it was juuuuust overthrown. At the same time, Carter got his fingers on it. I think it’s 75% Leary, 25% Carter. Such a tough pass to make, he would have needed to drop it right in the basket and allow Carter to catch it and then get out of bounds. Ain’t mad at this attempt even though this would have led to 1st and goal at the 8.

On to the next one.

3rd & 9, 0:48 remaining, Pitt 37 yd line

Okay now the temperature is heating up. The broadcast puts up the lovely jinx graphic showing NC State is 7/15 on 3rd down so far in this game. That won’t improve on this play.

Pitt is very good at masking their rush. Here they show 5 and rush 4. State flips the field and lines up trips right.

Keep an eye on #8. He does the well coached thing and puts up the picket fence to bat down a pass to Thomas where he was wide open with room to run. These have got to be the plays that frustrate coaches. The offensive line did well to withstand the pressure, the QB gets the pass off to an open receiver, and the defender just makes a good heads up play. Not sure if Leary could have done anything differently to avoid this. NC State is now 7/16 on 3rd downs for those counting.

...Now we are officially in uh-oh territory.

4th & 9, 0:43 remaining, Pitt 37 yd line

Remember that 3rd and goal play. Sure would like to sit back and comfortably watch Chris Dunn kick us into the lead here. Or that entire last 75 yard drive by Pitt?? The defense needs to improve to close out games and not let opponents back in.

Pitt will rush 4 and Thayer Thomas will run a textbook curl to the sideline, breaking at the first down line.

Seeing this play again, I’m actually confused at how open he was. The spread receivers probably made the defenders unsure on who to commit to. They knew it would be a pass play, but couldn’t be aggressive in any one direction because Thomas, Emezie, Angeline and Carter all got targets on this drive alone.

Again, we see the simple upgrades Tim Beck makes. He shows the defense similar sets, but mixes it up to keep them on their toes. This is especially successful against a defense like Pitt that makes its money (figuratively, because players will never be paid goshdarnit) on being overly aggressive and getting pressure.

You can make them second guess just long enough to create openings. As long as the QB can get the ball there on time, it results in plays like this:

Leary took a pop on this play but still stood in there to make the throw. Emezie also provided just enough of a screen so the backside defender took an extra second to get there. Credit to Thomas as always for his sure-handedness, taking a hit and fighting for an extra couple yards. “And that’ll be another Wolfpack, FIRST DOWN!

It’s honestly such a phenomenal play that you might not have even noticed that Angeline looks like he was wide open on the right side. Hard to confirm from the camera angle. Because of the hurry-up offense there was no time for replays during the broadcast.

Alright, I’ve seen this story before. You’re going to get JUST close enough to rope me in. Complete a 4th down conversion, get a fresh set of downs, clock stops, you’re in the redzone. All the ingredients are in the gumbo to get me to think there’s a shot only to rip it away.

1st & 10, 0:35 remaining, Pitt 23 yd line

Again, this is the spot to be the right kind of aggressive. Not reckless, but take shots at the right time. This was one of those times. The Pack caught Pitt being overly aggressive all day, and were able to successfully draw penalty after penalty. You take a shot here, maybe you get a big completion, or maybe you get a friendly flag.

This time Pitt showed 4 and brought a 5th rusher on a delay. The Pack sent all 4 receivers long.

Leary targeted Angeline, who was held by the defender and States gets another first down.

Pat Narduzzi looking at the stat sheet, “we had how many penalties??”

Another look at the holding call as it was tough to see on the first angle:



1st & 10, 0:29 remaining, Pitt 13 yd line

The Wolfpack continue the hurry-up and now Pat Narduzzi calls his final timeout to regroup.

This gives us the chance to check in with the ‘ol win probability meter:

Pitt win probability just before NC State TD

Devin Leary and Emeka Emezie saw that and said hold my non-alcoholic beer.

A hilarious subplot this whole season has been how bad the ACC Network graphics have been. It’s not 1st & goal, bruh.

Interesting wrinkle: For the first time this whole drive, NC State spreads the field with 5 receivers. This forces Pitt to cover everyone, making them only able to rush 4. For every other play down the stretch, Ricky Person has been in the backfield (pretty sure Person was the only RB, couldn’t tell). He didn’t get a single carry, but he was there for the run threat and extra pass protection (it worked most of the time).

This new wrinkle may have been what caused Narduzzi to take that timeout. And this is where Leary pointed out to Tim Beck something he saw in the defense and wanted to call the next play. The rest, as they say...

That’s a lot of arrows.

This spread formation sent the defense in all different directions. And they specifically all went AWAY from Emezie, giving them single coverage allowing them to, well, you know:

So good that it needs another angle. Such good body control by Emezie. Great back shoulder throw with good touch on it by Leary. I love the TD call by the sideline guy with the extra balls.

To finish off the game, the Pack went for 2 and failed.

This was Eli-esque

I actually think they got a little too cute with this one. The fade pass didn’t fade, Emezie never had a shot at catching it. It was the only really poor throw Leary made in this drive. We’ll take it, and look at a couple more angles of the game winning TD.

Okay, just one more.

To finish off the game, the defense did their job by not allowing some fluke comeback. Pitt got the ball back at their own 26 yard line and 23 seconds left. Their first play went like this:

Very good coverage, and most importantly avoided a costly penalty while making a well timed hit. The next play ended with a much deserved fist bump.

In conclusion, we will likely have frustrating moments and continued growing pains. There may be times they regress like they did vs VT. But combining this game and the Wake Forest game show a very positive trend pointing towards, dare I say it, optimism! Seeing the QB go 6/8 for 79 yards and a TD in 1:21 with no timeouts. More of that, please.

Oh, before we go, let’s check back in with the probability meter:

Ball game.