Jacoby Brissett hit Matt Dayes with a 35-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline, and Niklas Sade added the extra point with 1:37 left in the game to lift NC State to a 24-23 football victory over Georgia Southern Saturday afternoon in Carter-Finley Stadium.
Georgia Southern led 23-17 following a 31-yard field goal by Alex Hanks, his third of the day, with 3:35 remaining. The Wolfpack drove 75 yards in 1:58 to take their first lead of the contest. Wolfpack safety Jarvis Byrd sealed the win with a big hit on B.J. Johnson to break up a pass attempt from Kevin Ellison on 4th-and-7 on Georgia Southern's ensuing possession.
It was the Eagles' first game as members of the FBS and Sun Belt Conference and the season opener for both teams. It was also the first meeting on the gridiron between the two schools.
Ellison finished with 300 yards of total offense with a career-best 184 coming through the air and 116 on the ground. Matt Breida rushed 10 times for 87 yards and his first career touchdown, and Zach Walker caught five passes for 84 yards.
Brissett completed 28-of-40 passes for 291 yards and three touchdowns, with two going to Bra'Lon Cherry, and Bo Hines caught nine passes for 85 yards. Dayes had six catches for 70 yards and the game-winning score, and Shadrach Thornton rushed 10 times for 73 yards.
Two huge momentum shifts came late in the game, starting with the first play of the fourth quarter. With Georgia Southern leading 20-10 on 4th-and-1 from their own 9-yard line, the Eagle defense got penetration and stuffed Thornton for no gain, giving the ball back to the offense.
The Eagles proceeded to go 90 yards in 10 plays to the NC State 1-yard line looking to expand their cushion to 17 points, but a fumbled snap was recovered by Wolfpack defensive tackle Monty Nelson. NC State drove
99 yards, and Brissett threw to Cherry for the final 11 to trim the margin to 23-17 with 6:55 remaining. The fumble was the Eagles' lone turnover of the game.
"A huge momentum shift," first-year Georgia Southern coach Willie Fritz said of the fumble. "We score there, and we're in the driver's seat. We just mishandled the snap. It's one of those situations – we're not under center a whole lot. We work on it like crazy, but just didn't get the snap."
Ellison put the Eagles deep inside NC State territory on their ensuing possession, scampering 52 yards before going down and having to come out of the game briefly with an injury. On 3rd-and-10 from the NC State 22-yard line, Hakim Jones barely got reserve quarterback Favian Upshaw by the ankles after an 8-yard gain, bringing up 4th-and-2. The Eagles elected to try for the field goal, and Hanks knocked it home with 3:35 left.
"We're very disappointed because we feel like we had the opportunity to win the ball game," said Fritz. "The kids played hard, and it was the first game and a hot day. We played really well in spurts on offense, defense and the kicking game. We did a lot of good things, but we sure wanted to get out of here with a win."
Leading 10-3, Georgia Southern distanced itself late in the first half. On 3rd-and-11 from the NC State 29-yard line, Ellison scrambled right and found an open Kentrellis Showers (59 yards receiving) in the end zone for a score with 34 seconds left in the first half. NC State moved the ball down to the Georgia Southern 37-yard line, but Sade's 54-yard field goal attempt went wide right as the horn sounded, one of two field goal misses on the day.
NC State scored its first touchdown of the season on its second possession of the second half when Brissett hit Cherry with a 6-yard pass. The scoring drive was set up by a 42-yard completion from Brissett to Jaylen Samuels, and made the margin 17-10 6:58 into the third quarter.
The Eagles came right back with a big play as Ellison threw to Walker in the flat and the senior turned it up field for a 51-yard gain. Ellison was stopped short on an option run on 3rd-and-goal, and Hanks booted a 19-yard field goal to push the margin back to 10 points late in the third quarter.
Georgia Southern opened the scoring on their second series and ninth play of the game as Breida ran left off tackle, broke through the line and scampered 61 yards untouched for the touchdown. Hanks added the point after to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead 5:53 into the contest.
The Wolfpack drove down to the Eagles' 24-yard line on their next possession, but on 3rd-and-4, Brissett's pass was incomplete. NC State settled for a 41-yard field goal by Sade, making the score 7-3 with 4:52 left in the first quarter.
The Eagles had to punt on their next possession, but Caleb Williams intercepted a Brissett pass and returned it 28 yards to the Wolfpack 15-yard line. The NC State defense made a big stop, forcing Hanks to knock in a 32-yard field goal, giving Georgia Southern a 10-3 cushion with 8:35 left in the first half.
"Alex Hanks played a heck of game," said Fritz. "He was great on kickoffs and money on extra points and field goals. We had a lot of guys do a lot of good things, but we know we can get better."
"There's disappointment in the locker room right now, but we know we have a lot more football to play," said Ellison. "We can't keep our heads down. We have to prepare this week for Savannah State."
Senior linebacker Edwin Jackson had a career-best and game-high 13 tackles with seniors Nick Wright and Deion Stanley each with nine. Antonio Glover had two pass breakups, a career best. Caleb Williams' interception was his first as an Eagle after transferring from Tyler Junior College earlier this year.
Georgia Southern plays its home opener next Saturday against local rival Savannah State with kickoff set for 6 p.m. It will be the Eagles' first home game as members of the FBS and Sun Belt Conference and the first contest in the newly-renovated Paulson Stadium.
Game Notes: Breida will go down in Georgia Southern lore as the first to player score a touchdown for the Eagles as members of the FBS; it was also his first career touchdown… The Eagles' first FBS play from scrimmage was a 2-yard Breida run; their first FBS pass was an 8-yard completion from Ellison to Walker… The Eagles committed their first penalty 3:50 into the 3rd quarter after a penalty-free first half… Hanks booted his first field goal since making a 31-yarder vs. St. Francis (Pa.) Sept. 7, 2013… Showers now has seven career TD passes, which ties him for seventh on the all-time list with Torrence Sorrell, 1989-92… Walker had three receptions by halftime, which is equal to the individual high in a single game all of last year… Fritz fell to 18-4 in season openers as a head coach… The Eagles saw their five-game win streak in season openers come to an end… Georgia Southern is now 22-11 in season openers and 3-8 on road.
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