RALEIGH, N.C. — Georgia Southern’s Kevin Ellison fumbled on the 1-yard line trying to score a touchdown that would have put the game away, and N.C. State scored a pair of touchdowns in the final 6:55 to beat the Eagles, 24-23, on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“You can’t turn the ball over. You can never do that. That’s how you lose games,” Ellison said about the play, which was the only play from under center in the game. “You’ve got to take care of it.”
The fumble was followed by a 99-yard N.C. State drive that made the score 20-17 GSU.
“That was the turning point in the game and a huge momentum swing,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “That’s finish. We’re starting to be who we should be at key times, we just have to be better at the beginning.”
Aside from the fumble and the Eagles’ final drive — three incomplete passes by Ellison including a nearly-spectacular catch that resulted in a drop by B.J. Johnson on fourth down — the sophomore quarterback was the star of the game. He rushed for 116 yards and threw for another 184 on nine completions, both career highs.
The talent level compared to be nearly even at most positions between the team, though first-year head GSU coach Willie Fritz didn’t address it directly.
“We had an opportunity to win the game at their place,” he said. “We just didn’t get it done.”
N.C. State (1-0) Jacoby Brissett, a junior who transferred to N.C. State from Florida after the 2012 season and sat out last year, stole the spotlight. In the Pack’s final two drives, Brissett was 14 of 16 for 136 yards and a pair of scores — one to Bra’Lon Cherry and another to Matt Dayes, a diving score that was reviewed after Dayes leaped over the pylon and kept the ball in bounds with 1:37 to go.
The Eagles — cramping up, taking a penalty for illegal substitutions and burning a timeout in the process — were out of gas.
“We just didn’t finish,” said linebacker Edwin Jackson, who had a game-high 13 tackles. “It’s something we’ll take into this week’s preparations.”
Liberty County High School alum Shadrach Thornton had a strong game for the Wolfpack, rushing for a team-high 73 yards on 10 carries, according to gopack.com.
Ellison gave the Eagles (0-1) a 17-3 lead with 34 seconds left in the first half when, on third-and-11, he rolled out and — rather than running for an easy first down — threw a dart into the end zone that found Kentrellis Showers for a 34-yard score.
The Eagles’ first score came on a first-quarter, 61-yard scamper by Matt Breida.
N.C. State answered with a Niklas Sade field goal. Sade had two more first-half opportunities, but missed from 52 and 54 yards.
Georgia Southern kicker Alex Hanks was a perfect 3 for 3, but the last one — a 31-yarder with 3:36 to go that put GSU ahead, 23-17 — was made on fourth-and-2 after Ellison got the Eagles into the red zone with a 52-yard run. Ellison limped off the field after the play, and, with backup quarterback Favian Upshaw in the game, Fritz took the points instead of going for a 2-point conversion.
“I made the safe call,” Fritz said. “They had to drive the field and score the touchdown. Obviously I was thinking about the series before when they went 99 yards. Hindsight is 20-20. I wish I’d have gone for it. We all make those calls, right?”
The Eagles host Savannah State at 6 p.m. Saturday in their first home game of the season, according to gseagles.com. The Tigers (0-1) dropped its season opener Saturday to Middle Tennessee State, 61-7, in Murfreesboro, Tenn., per ssuathletics.com.
N.C. State hosts Old Dominion at 6 p.m. Saturday.
Coastal Courier staff contributed to this report.