N.C. State made more mistakes in its 35-17 win at Pittsburgh than in any other win this season, but these five plays helped the Wolfpack extend its winning streak to six games:
1. Nyheim Hines’ 92-yard punt return
Score: N.C. State 7, Pitt 7
Time: :55, first quarter
Breaking my own rule here and going with a scoring play, but this was too important to not recognize.
N.C. State’s offense was struggling in the first quarter. Quarterback Ryan Finley was not sharp, and the receivers had reverted to the days of frequent dropped passes.
Pitt had honored former linebacker Rickey Jackson before the game, and it was like N.C. State was paying tribute to former quarterbacks Mike Glennon and Jacoby Brissett with the dropped passes.
In desperate need of a spark, Hines popped an 83-yard touchdown run to tie the score at 7. The defense forced a punt on the next series and Hines struck again.
Pitt punter Ryan Winslow got off too good of a kick, a 53-yarder, because Hines had too much room.
With blocks on the outside from gunners Chris Ingram and Maurice Trowell, Hines had room to spare.
“The guys that blocked for him on that punt return deserve a gold star, because I’ve never seen a punt returner have zero people touch him on a vertical punt return like that,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
Hines caught the ball at the N.C. State 7-yard line and then made one slight cut at the 20 and hit full speed. Hines, an ACC champion and All-American sprinter in track, blew past Winslow at the N.C. State 40 and was gone.
“I was running track today,” Hines said. “I got my knees up and got my arms pumping.”
It was the longest punt return by an N.C. State player since Jack McDowall had a 95-yarder against Duke in 1926.
2. Darian Roseboro’s tackle for loss
Score: N.C. State 14, Pitt 14
Time: 6:32, third quarter
Field position: 1st and 10 at the Pitt 44
Difficult, emotional week for Roseboro, whose father died on Oct. 7. The junior defensive end made a key stop here to thwart some of Pitt’s momentum and set the table for N.C. State’s offense.
Pitt had picked up two first downs on the series. On first down, the Panthers tried a misdirection toss to running back Jordan Whitehead. Germaine Pratt and Shawn Boone strung out the play and then Roseboro came from the backside to take Whitehead down for a 4-yard loss.
A holding call on the next play pushed the Panthers’ offense even farther back and then they punted two plays later.
3. Ryan Finley’s 43-yard pass to Kelvin Harmon
Score: N.C. State 14, Pitt 14
Time: 4:32, third quarter
Field position: 1st and 10 at the N.C. State 34
Pitt ranks No. 111 in pass defense for a reason, but N.C. State couldn’t exploit it in the first half.
The Panthers use an aggressive press coverage on the outside. It’s the same scheme coach Pat Narduzzi employed with great success as Michigan State’s defensive coordinator.
But the scheme doesn’t work without exceptional corners and a great pass rush. Pitt has neither.
Freshman corner Damarri Mathis (5-11, 185 pounds) was pressed up on Harmon (6-3, 213) on Finley’s right, to the short side of the field.
Mathis didn’t get a bump or jam on Harmon, who just released inside. The ball was underthrown by Finley, and Whitehead (who also plays safety) came over to help, but Harmon snatched the ball at the Pitt 35-yard line and then ran for 12 more yards.
Four plays later, Finley hit Jakobi Meyers for a 3-yard score and a 21-14 lead.
4. Finley’s 36-yard pass to Harmon
Score: N.C. State 21, Pitt 14
Time: 13:43, fourth quarter
Field position: 2nd and 10 at the Pitt 47
Same problem, other side for Pitt. This time corner Dane Jackson didn’t get a bump off the line and had no help. Jackson was actually in good position, but Harmon went up for the ball and made a difficult catch.
Three plays later, Jaylen Samuels punched the first of his two rushing touchdowns.
5. Airius Moore’s QB hurry of Kenny Pickett
Score: N.C. State 28, Pitt 14
Time: 8:11, fourth quarter
Field position: 3rd and 8 at the N.C. State 26
Pitt was in desperation mode here, pulling quarterback Ben DiNucci and going with freshman Kenny Pickett.
Pickett made some throws but couldn’t pull this one off with good pressure up the middle from Moore.
Moore blitzed and flushed Pickett to the quarterback’s left. The right-handed Pickett had receiver Maurice Ffrench at the 2-yard line but couldn’t get enough on the pass – across his body – to get Ffrench the ball.
Down 14 points with 8 minutes left, Narduzzi decided to kick a field goal on fourth down. There can’t be a chart anywhere that suggests that was a good decision.
And Narduzzi is a Championship Analytics Inc. subscriber.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio