RALEIGH — After running back Shadrach Thornton scored his first touchdown on the first drive of the game, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien tried to keep the freshman from getting too over-hyped about the fast start.
"It's going to be a long night," O'Brien said to Thornton.
It was, for The Citadel, and a memorable one for Thornton, who ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Wolfpack to a surprisingly elementary 52-14 home win over the Bulldogs.
Thornton entered the season fifth, at best, on N.C. State's depth chart. Actually, the odds were better that Thornton would redshirt in 2012 than play in a game, let alone start one. But with injuries to two veterans and a suspension for Mustafa Greene, Thornton found himself in the starting lineup Saturday night.
He made the most of his college debut with touchdown runs of 19 and 7 yards in the first quarter. Thornton broke the 100-yard mark on the first drive of the second half and surpassed the team rushing total from each of the first three games.
"Let's not give him the Heisman Trophy yet," O'Brien said after the game.
Maybe not the Heisman but, combined with a strong defensive effort, it was enough to give N.C. State (3-1) its third straight win of the season and 24th consecutive over a Division I-AA opponent.
N.C. State was on edge all week after The Citadel trounced Appalachian State last Saturday. O'Brien trumped up the Bulldogs' option offense as a modern version of Nebraska's but he never said much about the Dogs' defense. And for good reason.
The Wolfpack scored on five of its six first-half possessions, and added a special teams touchdown. It was only the third time, in 67 games under O'Brien, the Wolfpack hit the half-century mark in points.
Thornton showed off an ability to accelerate and some good size, 6-1 and 200 pounds, especially for a true freshman. If Thornton was nervous in his first college game, he didn't act like it, even if a week ago he wouldn't have predicted such a successful debut.
"Probably not but I've dreamed about it," Thornton said. "And I wrote it down as a goal."
Greene was out for the second straight week with a suspension and senior James Washington and sophomore Tony Creecy both missed the game with undisclosed injuries.
That left Thornton and senior Brandon Barnes, who added 47 yards and a 6-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
Thornton ran for 35 yards on the first drive, including the final 19 for his first touchdown. The Citadel answered with a 65-yard touchdown run by fullback Darien Robinson, a textbook option dive, but that was the extent of their highlights.
Thornton capped the second State drive with a 7-yard touchdown run for the 14-7 lead. The strong running and quick cuts by Thornton might have surprised most outsiders but not his blockers.
"We all knew he could play," senior center Cam Wentz said. "He's talented, as you all saw tonight, and he's just going to continue to grow."
N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon, who ran for two touchdowns in the first half, connected with receiver Bryan Underwood for a 20-yard touchdown to turn a David Amerson interception into a 21-7 lead.
Glennon sandwiched a pair of 2-yard touchdown runs around a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown by Rashard Smith to give State a 42-7 advantage at the half.
The Citadel scored the first touchdown of the second half, a 15-yard run by Vinny Miller, but the Pack scored the final 10 points of the game with Barnes' 6-yard score and a 23-yard field goal from Niklas Sade.