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West Virginia University defensive lineman Darius Stills celebrates Saturday during the Mountaineers’ 44-27 win against North Carolina State at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s game Saturday against visiting North Carolina State had all the makings of a college football shootout.

The teams were tied 21-21 at halftime and both offenses seemed to be finding ways to move the ball. That stopped in the second half — at least it did for the Wolfpack.

WVU’s defense held North Carolina State to just 97 total yards and five first downs in the final two quarters Saturday. Twice the Wolfpack had the ball deep in Mountaineer territory in the third quarter, and twice NC State was held to just a field goal.

It was a stark difference from the West Virginia defense last seen missing 20-some tackles and multiple sacks as Missouri dropped 38 points on the Mountaineers last week.

“We played much better [on defense] in the second half,” WVU coach Neal Brown said. “We had some guys go down during the game and had to play a lot of snap [with] new guys in the secondary, but we found a way. We played really good football in the second half.”

One of the big blows to the WVU defense on Saturday came in the first quarter when starting senior free safety Josh Norwood was flagged for targeting and, after a review, was ejected from the game.

It was Norwood’s second targeting ejection of his career — he was also thrown out of the 2018 game at Texas Tech for the same offense.

“This isn’t a knock on the officiating at all, but that targeting rule is so hard to officiate,” Brown said. “It is so hard, just by the letter of the law. I don’t think Norwood’s intent was bad because if you watch the clip, he really tries to slow up. But it is [targeting]. He hits him with is helmet.”

Norwood’s ejection meant true freshman Kerry Martin, a former Capital High standout known more as a quarterback in high school, was thrown into the deep end of the pool and told to swim. It wasn’t always pretty, but Brown said Martin got much better as the game went on.

“[Martin had] some ups and downs,” Brown said. “I thought the second half was way better than the first half. Kerry is a guy who has made so much improvement since spring ball. He went through spring practice [having] never played [much] defense before.

“We get about three or four weeks after spring ball, and he’s in the two-deep, then a couple series into today he’s playing every snap. I thought he did a really good job in the second half. The thing I was most proud of was when he gave up that touchdown. He kind of backed up, and the kid caught a touchdown in front of him. But he showed some real maturity because he came back, and he played through that. I thought the staff did a good job with him too, building him up.”

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Norwood was not the only WVU player called for targeting Saturday, but he was the only one ejected. Not long after Norwood was sent to the locker room, West Virginia senior cornerback Keith Washington made a play against NC State quarterback Matt McKay in which the Wolfpack player slid late as Washington went to make a tackle.

Washington was initially called for targeting, but after a review it was ruled there was no targeting but there was a personal foul on the play.

“This is where I feel for the officials,” Brown said. “Keith tackles him, I don’t know how you coach that play. I really don’t know how you coach the play because you have a quarterback who is big, and Keith already left his feet when he decides to slide. He does hit him, so he gets a personal foul. It wasn’t targeting, but I really don’t know how you coach the play. If you don’t try to tackle him and he runs you over — you know what I mean? I just think it’s hard to call, so I feel with the officials. i wasn’t necessarily upset.”

Contact Tom Bragg at tom.bragg@wvgazettemail.com or 304-348-4871. Follow him on Twitter @TomBraggSports. Read Tom’s WVU sports blog at http://blogs.wvgazettemail.com/wvu/