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NC State’s special teams come up big as Wolfpack fends off Ball State, 34-23

That, uh, was a football game that happened.

NCAA Football: Ball State at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

We came into this weekend hoping to see the encouraging signs of a team getting back on track and improving after the poor performance against West Virginia a week ago. What we got was a winning performance that was so blah I almost feel a little dejected. None of the gnawing questions we had were answered in positive ways tonight.

Were it not for a couple of big special teams plays during the second half, NC State may well have dropped this game to Ball State. Thayer Thomas’ long punt return touchdown was a huge difference in the game, and later, the Wolfpack blocked a punt to set up its struggling offense inside the Ball State 10. Matthew McKay cashed in that opportunity a few plays later, and those were the only points the offense managed in the second half.

There was a period in the second quarter where NC State was playing well and McKay looked as comfortable as he ever has, and the Pack turned a 7-6 deficit into a 20-7 halftime lead. With the Pack receiving out of the break, it looked like the team was in great shape to seize full control of the contest.

Instead, the offense spent the vast majority of the final two quarters sputtering and stifled, and Ball State just kept hanging around. If the Cardinals were more aggressive and didn’t settle for so many field goals, who knows. And if the Pack doesn’t make an interception in the end zone with several minutes left, again, who knows. NC State left the door open for some shenanigans to suddenly put the outcome seriously in doubt, and that is nearly what happened when Ball State recovered an onside kick after pulling to within 34-23.

The defense was solid overall, limiting Ball State to less than five yards per play, but the defense was also on the field for 87 snaps, which was clearly taking a toll by the end. We are extremely fortunate that Ball State wasn’t more opportunistic at some key times. And that the special teams were there to deliver big plays.

I’m not sure what there is to take from this, as far as the larger picture is concerned. It’s clear that NC State still has significant problems on the offensive side—and nothing of what happened is gonna quiet the folks who want to see Bailey Hockman get a shot as starter.