For 25 glorious minutes in the second half Thursday, everything that has gone wrong for State this season finally began to go right. The defense created a turnover when Larrell Murchison recovered his second fumble of the game. The offense converted into a touchdown. Devin Leary finally settled in and began slinging the ball around with confidence and accuracy, completing 10 of his 16 second half passes for 163 yards and a score. Running backs Zonovan Knight and Jordan Houston kept the chains moving by gouging out large chunks of yardage on the ground while Ricky Person Jr. got the ball into the end zone with a powerfully determined run. The Wolfpack even had two calls reversed in its favor upon review. When all was said and done, State outgained Tech 278-149 yards and held the Yellow Jackets to just nine yards passing over the final two periods while outscoring the opposition 23-7.
Unfortunately all that good wasn't enough to overcome a first half that typified the Wolfpack's woes during its five-game losing streak. It began on the opening kickoff when State failed to come up with the ball after Tech returner Juanyeh Thomas put it on the ground. One play later, quarterback James Graham -- a 46-percent passer -- hit receiver Malachi Carter for a 54-yard gain and the 2-8 Yellow Jackets were off and running. Before the half was over, the Wolfpack had came up short on a fourth-and-two play in the red zone, was forced to settle for a field goal on another drive that stalled after Leary was called for an illegal blindside block and had committed any number of other self-inflicted mistakes. The worst one, however, came with just over a minute left before halftime when Thayer Thomas muffed a punt he was trying to fair catch. Instead of getting the ball with a chance to cut into Tech's lead and gain momentum, the Wolfpack dug its hole just a little deeper by giving up a touchdown that increased its deficit to 21-7.
As mentioned earlier, State was on the right side of two video review reversals. The first came on the opening drive of the second half when Leary hit Devin Carter for what appeared to be a first down. As he tried to turn upfield, the redshirt freshman receiver dropped the ball and immediately fell on it. The play was ruled an incomplete pass on the field, but after the review, it was changed to a fumble and recovery. State went on to finish the drive with a touchdown. Then in the fourth quarter, Tech appeared to extend a possession of its own when on third down, a Graham pass that should have been intercepted bounced out of cornerback Malik Dunlap's hands and was caught by a diving receiver Adonicas Sanders. The play was ruled a complete pass and a first down. But replay showed the ball hit the ground first, forcing the Yellow Jackets to punt.
PLAYER OF THE WEEK
This week's winner is a package deal of freshman running backs. Knight gained exactly 100 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown while Houston rushed for 89 yards on 16 attempts to key a ground attack that accounted for 230 yards and averaged a shade under five yards per carry. Houston also had three catches for 39 yards while Knight added one reception for 11. Between them they accounted for 239 of their team's 457 yards in the game.
STAT OF THE WEEK
With just under three minutes remaining in the first half, defensive end Ibrahim Kante hit Graham behind the line and knocked the ball loose. When Murchison fell on the fumble, it marked the first turnover forced by the Wolfpack since the fourth quarter of the Ball State game on Sept. 28. State went 376 minutes, 19 seconds -- more than six full games -- between Chris Ingram's interception in the end zone against the Cardinals and the first of Murchison's two fumble recoveries Thursday.
Tabari Hines had become something of a forgotten man in State's offense recently with only 74 receiving yards in his last four games combined -- including a shutout in last week's loss to Louisville. But against Tech on Thursday, the graduate transfer had four catches for 88 yards, including two on consecutive plays during a touchdown drive that got the Wolfpack to within 28-20 early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive end James Smith-Williams missed Thursday's game after an apparent concussion last in the Louisville, adding to an injured list that has been well-documented over the course of the season. Other than that, there didn't appear to be anyone else that went down with serious health issues. State even got some of its walking wounded back with linebackers Payton Wilson and C.J. Hart also returning to action after missing the previous week.
THEY SAID IT
"I thought the last two minutes of the first half really hurt us. We had a scoring drive, a three-and-out and getting the ball back with a chance to go score and we fumble the punt. I know no one feels worse about that than Thayer (Thomas). But to give them that field position before the half and then they score was tough. We were kicking a field goal, which we did and made it, and getting the ball back to start the third quarter that we could get a little bit of momentum swing there. So that was critical." Coach Dave Doeren
“We asked them to start fast and strike first, they did that. And then we asked them to finish and that last drive, putting it together with five minutes left on the clock and not letting them have the ball back was really cool to see. The will of our offensive line, the will of our running backs, blocking on the perimeter from our tight ends was really, really cool." Tech coach Geoff Collins
"For me and all the other guys, it’s kind of tough the process right now. Next week will be our last game. We don’t get to enjoy that bowl game experience. We went through a lot this year. The best way to go out if you can’t go to a bowl game is to win." Graduate WR Tabari Hines on the Wolfpack being eliminated from postseason contention
The Wolfpack will close out the 2019 season against arch-rival North Carolina in a 7:30 p.m. start at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday.