For six straight games, N.C. State was the team that made the important third-down conversion or a got a timely defensive stop.
Notre Dame was the team to make those game-changing plays on Saturday. Five key plays that led to N.C. State’s 35-17 loss to the Fighting Irish:
1. Nyheim Hines’ injury
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Score: N.C. State 7, Notre Dame 7
Time: 9:29, first quarter
Field position: 1st and 10 at the N.C. State 19
It looked like a routine first-down run. Hines went off tackle right for 3 yards and was pulled down by linebacker Nyles Morgan, Daelin Hayes and Te’von Coney. Hines’ right ankle got caught under his weight and Morgan’s.
Hines stayed in for one play, and blocked Morgan on a blitz pickup, but wasn’t able to play the rest of the game.
Without the speed element of Hines, Notre Dame was able to crowd the line of scrimmage and be super aggressive, especially on run plays and shorter passing routes.
Hines had run for at least 90 yards in the previous five games. Without Hines, Notre Dame held the Wolfpack to 50 rushing yards.
2. Brandon Wimbush’s 20-yard scramble
Score: N.C. State 14, Notre Dame 7
Time: 12:51, second quarter
Field position: 3rd and 10 at the Notre Dame 48
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N.C. State had forced Notre Dame to punt on two of its first three possessions of the game. The Wolfpack had a chance to get the Irish off the field again.
Wimbush had plenty of time to throw the ball, N.C. State only pressured with four players. Linebackers Airius Moore and Germaine Pratt both dropped into coverage. No one ran a route into Pratt’s zone, which left him as a spy on Wimbush.
Pratt had a chance to bring Wimbush down at the 44-yard line — about five yards short of the first down — but missed the tackle. Wimbush picked up another 12 yards after the contact with Pratt.
Six plays later, Wimbush scored on a designed run, a 3-yard touchdown, to tie the game at 14.
3. Durham Smythe’s third-down catch
Score: N.C. State 14, Notre Dame 14
Time: 5:57, second quarter
Field position: 3rd and 6 at the N.C. State 22
This was a great catch by Smythe, Notre Dame’s 6-5 tight end who had only seven catches in the first seven games of the season.
Smythe was lined up as an outside receiver to Wimbush’s left. Wimbush was in the pocket for a long time before he started to drift out towards the Notre Dame sidelines.
Smythe ran back to the sideline to help Wimbush, who held the ball for 6 seconds. Wimbush threw it high and outside, out of cornerback Johnathan Alston’s reach, and Smythe was able to catch the ball and keep both feet inbounds for an 11-yard gain.
It was really incredible footwork by Smythe, who tapped both toes on the ground, to keep the drive alive. On the next play, receiver Kevin Stepherson did his own tap dance, near the N.C. State sideline, for an 11-yard touchdown and a 21-14 lead.
4. Julian Love’s interception
Score: Notre Dame 21, N.C. State 14
Time: 12:19, third quarter
Field position: 3rd and 10 at the Notre Dame 42
The “free” play that wasn’t for N.C. State.
Wolfpack quarterback Ryan Finley tried to draw the Notre Dame defense offsides with a hard count. Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery flinched on Finley’s cadence, so center Garrett Bradbury snapped the ball.
No one else on N.C. State’s offensive line moved after the ball was snapped. The flag never came.
“That’s the obvious risk in that play,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Ryan thought he had a free play there.”
Finley didn’t but he took a shot to receiver Kelvin Harmon anyway. Notre Dame corner Julian Love took advantage of the mix up. He intercepted the errant pass and returned it 69 yards for a touchdown.
It was Finley’s first interception of the season and ended his streak of 339 attempts without one.
“That’s on me,” Finley said. “I’ve got to make sure (the official) throws the flag. It’s only offsides if he throws the flag. Just a stupid decision by me, I’ve got to throw it out of bounds.”
5. Notre Dame’s fourth-down stop
Score: Notre Dame 28, N.C. State 14
Time: 7:35, third quarter
Field position: 4th and 1 at the Notre Dame 6
Love’s touchdown gave the Irish a two-touchdown lead. N.C. State responded quickly with a 58-yard kickoff return by Jaylen Samuels.
A snap exchange issue with Bradbury and Finley left N.C. State with third and 16. Harmon turned a short screen into a 15-yard gain but came up a yard short of the first down.
There was some pre-snap confusion with the personnel and Samuels ended up as fullback with Reggie Gallaspy behind him. Receiver Stephen Louis went in motion to fake a jet sweep and Finley turned around and gave the ball to Gallaspy.
The junior 225-pound running back didn’t even get to the line of scrimmage. Coney made sure of that.
“We’ve got to be able to get that on fourth-and-1,” Finley said.
The stop by Coney effectively ended any real chance N.C. State had at winning the game.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio