CARTER-FINLEY STADIUM/RALIEGH “N.C. State here we go,” a man dressed all in red shouted as he exited Carter-Finley Stadium, his team having just defeated its bitter rival for the third straight year. “TOB (Tom O’Brien) 3-0. Here we go. Butch Davis, what do you have?”
“Stop, you’re making a spectacle,” his girlfriend told him sharply.
“But this is all we’ve got,” he sheepishly replied.
He’s right, N.C. State’s season is done, and Davis’ team now moves on to a yet-to-be-determined bowl game, but what they’ve got matters one heck of a lot. Ask O’Brien who said after the game this was his most challenging season in a three decades as a college coach. Or talk to one of the nine seniors on the team who end their careers victorious. Sure, on its face this 28-27 win that closed the books on a 5-7 season might not seem like a big deal, but boy is it.
“We could play this team in the McDonald’s parking lot and it would be a bowl game,” wide receiver Owen Spencer said.
The odds seemed long at halftime. UNC had dominated offensively scoring touchdowns of 35, 40 and 70 yards on the way to a 24-14 lead. The Wolfpack’s much-maligned defense turned things around in the second frame, and quarterback Russell WIlson was able to create big plays of his own, twice finding Spencer deep over the middle for scores. Senior Alan-Michael Cash blocked a Casey Barth 38-yard field goal attempt with 4:45 to play and N.C. State was able to pick up key first downs before giving the ball back to Yates on the 28-yard line with just 23 seconds to play. Yates overthrow Greg Little on a corner route, and Clem Johnson picked the ball to seal the win.
Relief. That was the strongest emotion from a soft-spoken O’Brien after the win.
“This is the hardest year I’ve even been through as a coach. Our best football player on our defense (Nate Irving) almost kills himself in a car accident before the season, and our offensive coordinator (Dana BIble) ends up with cancer (leukemia). We had 16 or 17 season-ending injuries,” he said.
“We were like a MASH unit out there. Every play some breaks this or does that. I’m glad it’s over. I don’t think we could play in a bowl game right now.”
To be sure, O’Brien had to depend on walk-on sophomore Jordan Monk at cornerback for much of the second half after Jarius Bryd went down. The Wolfpack started a different secondary in nearly every game this year. O’Brien had to play seven true freshman and 17 in total.
“I haven’t played 17 freshmen ever,” he said. “Basically we’ve been hanging on to be quite frank.”
“Whoever scheduled this game as the last game of the year, I’m pretty happy about it,” O’Brien said.
Bible’s cancer fight inspires players
The players were quick to dedicate the victory to Coach Bible, who has been in isolation at the hospital since being diagnosed with leukemia last weekend.
“It really was about our offensive coordinator this game,” Spencer said. “We didn’t know how to adjust, but we did.”
O’Brien said he’s talked to Bible on the phone a couple of times and that the game ball will go to him.
That almost wasn’t possible, though. Wilson chucked the ball into the stands as the final whistle sounded.
“It felt good, but as soon as I let it go I was like, ‘Shoot i wish i could get it back because I want to give it to Coach Bible,’” Wilson said. “Whoever gave it back was a special person. I want to thank them because that’s going to mean a lot to Coach Bible.”
The quarterback spoke to his bed-ridden offensive coordinator twice Friday by phone. Bible gave him a pre-game speech and some keys to look for on the UNC defense.
“I felt it right here in my heart for him. I know how hard it’s got to be when you really love something and you can’t be there,” Wilson said.
“He told me to persevere. He told me to keep my mind in the right spot, make sure I see the defense and just play the game like I know how to play it.”
Johnson added that Bible’s message translated to the Wolfpack defense as well.
“We understand he’s in a touch situation right now, and he’s fighting for his life,” the senior safety said. “We just kind of to translated that to the football field. We knew that’s what it was going to be, a four-quarter fight, and that’s what we did.”