It’s a little early to be in “must-win” territory. After all, Saturday’s game with Wake Forest was N.C. State’s first ACC game of the season.
But there was no doubt among the Wolfpack players the value of Saturday’s home game, especially after an early-season stumble at East Carolina.
“It was definitely a must-win for us,” quarterback Ryan Finley said.
Finley had a career game to deliver a 33-16 win over the Demon Deacons and get the Wolfpack off to a 1-0 ACC start for the first time since 2010.
The redshirt sophomore quarterback threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns as N.C. State (3-1, 1-0) beat Wake Forest for the 15th time in 16 home games.
N.C. State had to overcome 13 penalties (for 144 yards), but this is the second straight year the Wolfpack has come off a bye week and jumped all over Wake Forest (4-1, 1-1).
N.C. State led 17-0 after the first quarter and last year it was 28-0 in Winston-Salem. Both times Wake Forest kept fighting but couldn’t overcome its slow start.
“I thought it was critical that we get off to a fast start,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “Once again, we didn’t. For whatever reason, we never start well against these guys.”
Finley, who finished 23-of-36 for 300 yards, took more chances down the field to his outside receivers. Running back Matt Dayes, who had another 100-yard game, made sure the Wolfpack got out of the gate quickly.
Dayes had a 6-yard touchdown run on the opening drive and finished with 125 yards on 24 carries. It was his third 100-yard game of the season and eighth in the past 12 games.
After the first of two field goals by N.C. State’s Kyle Bambard, the Wolfpack got a 13-yard touchdown pass from Finley to Jaylen Samuels.
Samuels was isolated in the slot on Wake Forest safety Jessie Bates. As was the pattern all game, Finley saw a matchup he liked and went for it.
“That was our game plan: take shots and let our guys make plays,” Finley said. “And that’s what we did. We had guys make a lot of big plays.”
After Wake got a trio of field goals from Mike Weaver in the second quarter and trailed 23-9 at the half, N.C. State got a 48-yard field goal from Bambard, his career long, and the team’s first field goal longer than 39 yards since 2014.
Wake Forest made it 26-16 after receiver Tabari Hines set up his 9-yard touchdown catch with a 40-yard connection with John Wolford (25-of-41, 263 yards) down the left sideline.
N.C. State’s defense had trouble containing Hines, who caught nine passes for 125 yards, but for the most part controlled Wake on the ground (69 rushing yards on 21 carries) and sacked Wolford four times.
The Wolfpack didn’t do anything fundamentally different from its 33-30 loss to East Carolina on Sept. 10, defensive end Bradley Chubb said. It was a more a matter of focus.
“We were thinking too much and not having fun with it,” Chubb said was the problem at ECU. “We had fun tonight. Hopefully we can build on this and keep it going throughout the season.”
The offense has been ahead of the defense, on that front. It has been building each week, getting the receivers involved and getting the ball down field more.
Sophomore receiver Stephen Louis had four catches for 102 yards, and freshman receiver Kelvin Harmon had two catches, both touchdowns, for 43 yards.
Harmon’s second touchdown, a 50-50 ball to the back left of the end zone, sealed the win for the Wolfpack.