DURHAM — The wheels came off fast for the NC State football team in a perplexing 38-20 loss Saturday at Duke.
The Blue Devils scored three touchdowns in the final 6:37 to rally from a three-point deficit to put away the Wolfpack in convincing fashion. The devastating loss caused NC State to fall to 3-6 overall and 0-6 in the ACC, with at Boston College up next. Duke improved to 7-2 overall and 3-2 in the league.
NCSU also fell to 0-3 against in-state opponents, and host East Carolina on Nov. 23. The Wolfpack would have to win out over the final three games to become bowl eligible, but the first step is to clean up their mistakes on offense and special teams.
"There is zero quit and I do feel there was improvement made in a lot of areas," NCSU first-year coach Dave Doeren said. "Duke is a good fourth quarter football team and have shown that all year [outscoring opponents 93-34]. We didn't finish the game.
"We are going to continue to work and build this program the right way. There will never be quit and we will not except losing, and will not make excuses."
NC State has lost five-straight contests, and the seniors know the chances are ticking away.
"We are tired of losing and losing is unacceptable in this program," said NCSU fifth-year wide receiver Rashard Smith, who broke his second punt return for a touchdown this season. "Duke is a good football team and we lost the game in the fourth quarter. They played better than we did."
NC State alternated between fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell and redshirt junior quarterback Pete Thomas throughout the game. Mitchell grabbed the bull by the horns by launching an 80-yard touchdown pass to fifth-year senior wide receiver Quintin Payton, who broke a pair of tackles to sprint down the left sideline to give the Wolfpack a 20-17 lead with 6:37 left.
Duke responded strongly with back-to-back 18-yard passes to junior wide receiver Jamison Crowder, and eventually a 31-yard run by senior running back/linebacker Juwan Thompson to the NCSU 8-yard line.
Duke redshirt junior backup quarterback Brandon Connette finished the drive off with a 5-yard touchdown run to give the Blue Devils' a 24-20 lead with 3:06 left in the game. Connette came in after redshirt junior starter Anthony Boone tossed three interceptions.
Mitchell came in for the next drive and then disaster struck. Lightly recruited redshirt freshman safety DeVon Edwards, who earlier had a 100-yard kickoff return to give Duke a 17-13 lead with 3:45 left in the third quarter, proved to be just warming up. Edwards deflected a pass upward and picked off Mitchell, and eluded NCSU tacklers for a 25-yard touchdown return. He then followed by doing the same to Thomas on the next possession, returning that interception 45 yards and the route was on with 3:05 left in the game for the finals points in the contest.
NC State's defense allowed only 17 points and caused four turnovers in the game. Three of the points came courtesy of a short field when NC State couldn't convert on fourth down and one at its own 26-yard line. Duke's Ross Martin kicked a 36-yard field to give the Blue Devils a 10-0 lead with 8:14 left in the first half.
"The turnovers for touchdowns were killers," Doeren said. "I felt like there was 21 points on the board that our defense was not responsible for. Defensively, we played as good as we could."
All three starting linebackers created turnovers for the Wolfpack. Junior outside linebacker Brandon Pittman led the way with 14 tackles and a sack, and redshirt sophomore strong safety Hakim Jones had an interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery.
Senior linebackers D.J. Green and Robert Caldwell also added interceptions, and the Wolfpack defense held Duke to 3 of 15 on third-down conversions.
"We are like a tight brotherhood on defense and will keep playing," Jones said. "We always feel like there is hope and that we can can still win. We never hang our heads low."
The Mitchell-Thomas duo combined to go 13-of-33 passing for 248 yards, three interceptions and one touchdown pass. The duo also rushed 18 times for 43 yards to complement sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton's 103 yards on 26 carries.
"We are fighting and scratching and running the football, and moving the football down the field," Doeren said. "We are just not throwing the ball well enough consistency, and that hurts you.
"We are playing the best two guys we have right now."
The defense played well enough to win, but the offense continued to sputter in scoring touchdowns in the red zone. NCSU has scored 10 touchdowns in 27 trips inside the 20-yard line.
"When we got in the red zone, we didn't make enough plays, and got field goals," Smith said. "That is all that is. We have to make touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone."
NC State's offense essentially scored 13 points, with Smith adding a 73-yard punt return for a score to tie the game 10-10 with 7:17 left in the game. Junior kicker Niklas Sade added his second field goal of the game to give the Wolfpack a 13-10 lead with 3:58 left, but the lead was short-lived due to Edwards' kick return for a touchdown.
The back-and-forth action went from Edwards' touchdown to Payton's impressive catch and run, setting up the last 6:37 of the game.
"We made a lot of plays tonight against a good football team, but we didn't finish the game," Doeren said. "We lost a tough game a week ago to a rival [UNC], and we came back and fought and prepared the right way. It hurts to lose when you put that much in."