Leary, Knight lead Wolfpack past Virginia, 38-21

North Carolina State running back Zonovan Knight is tackled by Virginia defenders during a game on Oct. 10 at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.

RALEIGH — Zonovan Knight was wearing a red jersey with white pants, and players with blue pants and white jerseys were chasing him all over the field on Saturday.

It could have been the other way around.

Shyheim Battle is emerging as a dependable cornerback with a snap count that will earn him seasoned veteran status before too long.

Knight and Battle, the former Southern Nash and Rocky Mount High standouts, respectively, have each pitched in from opposite sides of the ball to power the N.C. State football team to a 4-1 start to the season after Saturday afternoon’s 31-20 win over the visiting Blue Devils.

It was the first meeting between the teams since 2013, and it was the first time the teams played in Raleigh since 2009.

“Our confidence is really high, we handled adversity well and it’s a very confident group,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “The second half defense was outstanding.”

Knight had verbally committed to Duke in March during his junior year of high school. Two months later he had typed out a Tweet that he was decommitting from the Blue Devils and re-opening his recruitment.

Two months after that, in July before starting his senior high school season, he decided on Doeren and N.C. State. Knight, who scored a total of 71 rushing touchdowns and 5,073 yards at Southern Nash, continued his productive rushing style in Raleigh and has been a fixture in the Wolfpack backfield ever since he started as a true freshman last season.

Knight led the Wolfpack in rushing as a true freshman, and is once again leading the team this season with 365 yards and a trio of touchdowns. He added 44 rushing yards on 10 carries to go with 24 receiving yards in Saturday’s win.

During one scoring drive in the third quarter, Knight hauled in a 20-yard, back-shoulder catch on third-and-8 that set up the eventual game-winning touchdown. Two plays later the Wolfpack scored when quarterback Devin Leary found tight end Cary Angeline for an 8-yard touchdown pass with 4:01 left in the third quarter.

Knight’s reception was the longest by a running back in the game.

“It’s critical to stay on the field and finish the game like that,” Doeren said. “Those kids are hungry and that running back room has a lot of character. They’re competing, cheering for each other and want to out-do each other in the game. And they want that football. It’s a good group.”

The Wolfpack had erased a 10-point deficit, and didn’t allow any Duke points in the second half as they completed the comeback win.

The first half was defined by strong defense which included both special teams units scoring touchdowns. Duke opened the scoring with a blocked punt that it returned for a touchdown and a 7-0 with 9:51 to play in the first quarter. That lead would expand to 10-0 after a second-quarter field goal.

Duke spread out the Wolfpack defense with five receivers to score its first offensive touchdown with 3:43 left to play in the half. It was a screen pass to the left to junior Jake Bobo, who leaked through a swarming NCSU defense for an 8-yard catch and score to push the lead to 17-7.

The Wolfpack special teams answered, however, as it added points with 45 seconds remaining in the half. The NCSU defense sacked Duke quarterback Chase Brice on third down deep in Blue Devils’ territory, which set up a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown.

In all, the NCSU defense finished with two sacks and three interceptions, with one touchdown allowed. Battle totaled one tackle in the win as Duke didn’t throw his way often. He didn’t factor into any takeaways, but Battle does have his signature on ‘The Bone’ which is defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s way of rewarding takeaways.

The player who records a takeaway signs the bone, and the most signatures gets to keep it at the end of the season. Battle had one of three Wolfpack interceptions in the Oct. 10 win over Virginia. It was the first time NCSU had four takeaways since the 2017 season.

Battle’s success stems from opportunity. He has logged the second-most amount of snaps played among Wolfpack players in the secondary. The redshirt freshman played 168 snaps through the first three games. Only sophomore Jakeen Harris (221) has played more.

Battle, who only played on special teams before this season, has started the first five games of the season at right corner, while the left corner position has seen three different starters. Battle had his best game of the season against Virginia with seven tackles and his first interception.

He is an important and reliable player on a defense that is playing strong football.

“The takeaways on defense stood out,” Doeren said.

The Wolfpack suffered a crucial loss as Leary was injured late in the third quarter and didn’t return. Doeren thought the injury could keep Leary away from the field for some time.

“We probably won’t have Devin for a while. It doesn’t look like we’ll have him for a while,” Doeren said. “He’s a tough kid and I hate it for him. I thought he got concussed, and when I talked to him it was his ankle he was worried about.”

Up next: N.C. State at North Carolina, noon, Oct. 24