RALEIGH — By the time Andre Brown stretched the ball over the goal line, the oldest of adages was proven again — there's a reason they play the game.
N.C. State was given little, or no chance, of beating East Carolina before the kickoff on Saturday, heck, even when the Pirates led late in the fourth quarter by a touchdown.
But by the time of Brown's second touchdown, the scoreboard read: N.C. State 30, ECU 24.
Nothing is predictable in this unpredictable series but that was the only reason before the game to think N.C. State, injury-depleted or healthy, could beat a talented, confident ECU team.
Then the game started and the energy and hunger ECU showed in beating Virginia Tech and West Virginia was noticeably absent, so was the ineptness and lack of execution N.C. State displayed against South Carolina and Clemson.
The best possible version of Russell Wilson, the one that inspired Tom O'Brien and Dana Bible to overhaul their offensive philosophy in the offseason, made his debut.
The freshman, three weeks removed from a concussion, completed 21 of 31 passes for 210 yards and three touchdowns. He didn't just avoid mistakes — which he did — he made plays.
And just as importantly, N.C. State's offensive line gave him time to make plays.
Actually, the only problem Wilson had was staying on the field. State coach Tom O'Brien used Harrison Beck in the first two possessions of the first half and the last.
Beck threw a pick six and fumbled on the final drive of the half to effectively give away 10 points.
To his credit, O'Brien fell squarely on the grenade for playing Beck.
"It backfired on us," O'Brien said. "We were concerned about turning the ball over. That's how smart I am."
Wilson took every snap in the second half. He had help winning the game from both State's defense and ECU coach Skip Holtz.
Up 21-17, ECU had first-and-goal from the 4-yard line. Jonathan Williams gained three yards on first down. After two predictable running plays to the middle of the field were stopped, Holtz elected to go for it on fourth down.
If you're up three, fine, prove to your team that you're manlier and go for the touchdown. Worst case, you get stopped and State has to drive 99 yards.
There's nothing wrong with that thought process, when you're up three. But up four, the field goal makes it seven points. There's a big difference between being up a field goal and being up a touchdown. If you don't believe me, call Dr. Lou.
Skip went for the kill and State linebacker Robbie Leonard and safety J.C. Neal read the play and nearly took the handoff from quarterback Patrick Pinkney.
"Give N.C. State credit," Holtz said of the decision. "They had to make some big plays to stop us and they did."
State got the ball and punted, so no big deal, right? Except when ECU got the ball back, it was still only up four points. The Pirates drove, were stopped again near the goal line and this time Holtz took the points.
Three points weren't enough. Wilson rallied State down the field and found tight end George Bryan, who began the season third on the depth chart, in the end zone.
Bryan's catch was ruled incomplete on the field. Actually, umpire Johnnie Forte called it incomplete and line judge Otis Cliatt Jr. signaled touchdown.
The on-field crew was supplied by Conference USA. The in-house booth crew by the ACC.
After a lengthy review, the play was ruled a touchdown.
"I thought they were going to overturn it," O'Brien said. "I thought the ACC's crew was going to take care of Conference USA officiating."
State didn't need any help, just the chance to play the game.
• Besides Wilson's play, and the improved blocking, the real bonus for State's offense on Saturday was the return of Jamelle Eugene. On the surface, Eugene's 25 yards on nine carries means little. But, his presence — he missed the first three games with an ankle injury — keeps Andre Brown fresher.
A fresher Brown makes the two plays he did in overtime. Without Eugene taking snaps during the game, he doesn't.
Plus, Eugene's real value is in the passing game. He caught a team-high seven passes for 50 yards. He gives Wilson an escape clause when the regularly-scheduled play breaks down. The easiest read for a young quarterback to make is to the running back.
It's not a coincidence that Wilson's best passing game came with a healthy Eugene.
• Who knows if Nate Irving's ankle sprain will keep him out of the South Florida game next week, and no State fan is surprised at another key injury, but really the injury situation is beyond ridiculous.
The defense, especially the line play of Antoine Holmes and Shea McKeen, who forced the fumble in overtime, adjusted without Irving but he has been by far and away the best player on State's roster. If they are to build any momentum from this win, they need Irving in the lineup.
• Kudos to O'Brien for acknowledging the importance of rivalry games. It's not just "one-twelfth" of the schedule, as a certain basketball coach was known to say, and the way O'Brien's teams have played against the Pirates (2-0) and UNC (1-0) proves that.
"It is a bigger game than say it was against Clemson or William & Mary because it is East Carolina and ceratinly the year they are having," O'Brien said. "Certainly it is a big deal for this football team and for our school that we win this game."