Explosive second quarter lifts No. 24 Tech

Another week, another path to a win.

Against Pittsburgh, four forced fumbles in the first six plays drove the rout over the Panthers. A week ago, the Yellow Jackets limited Virginia to 22 rushing yards. On Saturday, before a sea of red and beneath an azure sky, Tech zapped N.C. State with a double shot of defensive touchdowns in a seven-play span in the second quarter to turn a possible shootout into a record-setting blowout and its eighth win of the season.

Tech, ranked No. 24 in the country, crushed N.C. State 56-23 on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium for their third win in a row, the second time in three weeks the Jackets have hung 56 as homecoming guests.

“It’s not pretty,” linebacker and team captain Quayshawn Nealy said of his unit, ranked 115th in the country in yards per play. “But at the end of the day, guys are just fighting and battling out there on the field. We’re coming up with big takeaways or big stops when we need them.”

The Jackets (8-2 overall, 5-2 ACC) maintained their peak offensive efficiency, driving for touchdowns on six of their first seven possessions. On the eighth, with the second-team offense in, Tech was inside the N.C. State 5-yard line when time mercifully expired on the Wolfpack (5-5, 1-5). The Jackets threw only eight times and piled up 479 rushing yards on 64 carries, their highest rushing total since the 604-yard masterpiece against Kansas in 2011 and their most in an ACC game.

Said quarterback Justin Thomas, who distributed the ball in the option offense with few mistakes, “We were running whenever we wanted to.”

B-back Synjyn Days burrowed deeper into his groove in his third consecutive game starting in place of the injured Zach Laskey with his third 100-yard game in a row. Days finished with a career-best 157 rushing yards on only 19 carries. His longest run was perhaps his easiest, a 53-yard first-quarter sprint up the middle as he followed blocks by center Freddie Burden and right guard Shaquille Mason. Burden was quick enough off the ball to put blocks on two different linebackers to create an alley for Days to shoot through.

“(Tech’s linemen) were coming off the ball and changing the line of scrimmage,” coach Paul Johnson said.

Despite the 33-point margin of defeat, N.C. State actually had a chance to take the lead in the second quarter. When Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett took a second-and-goal snap on the Tech 5-yard line about 4 1/2 minutes into the second quarter, his team trailed 14-13 after holding a brief 13-7 lead before Days’ score.

As a six-man rush closed in, Brissett threw behind wide receiver Bryan Underwood, who couldn’t hold onto the ball. It stayed alive when cornerback Chris Milton unintentionally kicked it into the air. Nealy seized upon it and took off down the left sideline and reached the N.C. State 30 before he was stripped of the ball by Wolfpack fullback Jaylen Samuels, who also recovered it.

A potential score was averted, but Tech’s defense remained on the field. Two plays later, though, cornerback D.J. White read Brissett, jumped an out route pass for an interception and ran the ball an unchallenged 38 yards for the touchdown.

Brissett, who had thrown three interceptions in his first 297 passes of the season, had thrown two in the span of three plays.

N.C. State came out for the next series and managed to make it through five plays with the ball before surrendering it again when linebacker Tyler Marcordes crashed Brissett on a blitz and forced the ball out. Nealy scooped it up and ran 43 yards for the score, the fourth defensive touchdown of his career.

With 7:12 left in the second quarter, Tech’s offense had scored 14, its defense had scored 14 and N.C. State had put up 13. With only three offensive drives to that point, the Jackets were averaging 9.3 points per possession. N.C. State’s offense ultimately played 25 consecutive snaps and didn’t score. In real time, the Tech offense had been on the sideline about 45 minutes from the time Days scored until the time it came on the field after the defense forced a punt.

“We’re opportunistic,” Johnson said of the defense. “We get some turnovers, find a way to get ’em stopped. It doesn’t look good all the time, but the results have been pretty good. They ran 51 plays in the first half and had (16) points. That’s the bottom line.”

The rest was a series of first downs and touchdowns for the Tech offense. N.C. State had three possessions in the second half, two of them three-and-outs. The Jackets’ second-half time of possession was 24:41.

Johnson called Nealy’s interception off Milton’s left shoe “a big play,” but observed that “they weren’t going to win if they never stopped us, I don’t think.”