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RALEIGH — It took all of one collegiate carry for N.C. State freshman and Southern Nash High product Zonovan “Bam” Knight to visit a place he was all too familiar with during his days with the Firebirds.
Battling sophomore Ricky Person for a starting role in the Wolfpack’s backfield during the preseason, Knight required one touch to show what he could do with the ball in his hand in Saturday’s season opener against East Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium.
With Person carrying the load on the opening series, Knight was inserted into the backfield on a first-and-goal from the ECU 9-yard line.
He took the handoff and evaded a crashing linebacker — ECU’s Bruce Bivens on the edge — and wasn’t touched once he got past the line of scrimmage and across the goal line on his way to a 9-yard touchdown in N.C. State’s 34-6 victory.
“That was a real feeling,” Knight said. “Especially with the crowd in the end zone. It’s a feeling everyone wishes they could experience.”
Knight finished as N.C. State’s leading rusher with nine carries for 43 yards as seven players touched the ball for the Wolfpack.
Once Knight punctuated a drive set up by an untimely ECU fumble inside the Wolfpack 5-yard line, he started to get the football with more regularity.
While his longest run was 13 yards, Knight, who was called up to Southern Nash’s varsity team as a sophomore, showed flashes of his shiftiness when given open space.
“This time, I think I was a little more comfortable,” Knight said. “I was still a little nervous, but I was more comfortable and confident in myself going out there than I was in high school.”
Once the Wolfpack’s offensive line opened a gaping hole to the end zone on that first touch, Knight, who chose N.C. State over a number of other Atlantic Coast Conference suitors, received his confirmation that he was, in no way, out of place at the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision level.
“Everything just felt like it came to me easier,” Knight said. “It felt like I belonged at the Division I level.”
Even in a successful debut, Knight had his educational moments.
In the third quarter, Knight took the handoff on a third-down play and was enveloped by ECU defensive lineman Alex Turner for a loss of a yard.
Perhaps, that doesn’t happen on Friday nights.
“It didn’t hurt that bad,” Knight assured. “But you have to read it a little faster and react to it a little bit.”
BIG SWINGS HURT PIRATES
Two fumbles, both recovered by the Wolfpack, helped derail ECU’s chances on both sides of the ball.
On the first drive of the Mike Houston era, the Pirates, behind sophomore quarterback Holton Ahlers, effectively moved the ball downfield with the aid of the short passing game.
The drive reached the N.C. State 9-yard, and Ahlers kept the ball on a keeper. But before he could break the plane, N.C. State safety Tanner Ingle intervened and dislodged the football. Safety Jarius Morehead recovered in the end zone, thwarting the long march and setting up the possession that would be capped by Knight’s first collegiate TD.
“We were on the goal line going in, and we’ve got to control the ball all the way through the end zone,” Houston said. “They don’t give any ribbons for coming close. That was a big play in the ball game because that completely changed the outlook in the first half. If you go into the first half tied or ahead, then that’s a completely different mindset coming out of the tunnel in the second half.”
Just before halftime, the Wolfpack led 10-3 and were on the march for a two-TD advantage entering halftime. Quarterback Matt McKay fumbled, but no ECU player could fall on it and the sequence turned into a 6-yard gain for N.C. State.
McKay scored on the next play, and a 14-point swing for the Pirates was reflected in the 17-3 halftime margin.
Any meaningful ECU success through the air, as discovered on its first drive, was thwarted once the N.C. State defense adjusted and began to take away the short passing game.
“They were throwing the ball quick and into the boundary,” N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said. “We were playing soft thirds into the boundary. We rolled our corners up, played tighter coverage and played a little bit more Cover 2. That was the biggest thing we did.”