Four straight losses, two that were excruciating, could have beaten down N.C. State by now.
The Wolfpack could have come into Saturday’s game against Syracuse and wilted at the first sign of adversity. Teams in a losing funk tend to do that.
But the Pack didn’t do that against the Orange. Refusing to let a tough loss one week lead to another, N.C. State put together a complete game in beating the Orange 35-20 at the Carrier Dome.
Ryan Finley wouldn’t let a first-half injury keep him out of the game, passing for a season-high 340 yards and a touchdown as his receivers made some difficult catches. Running back Matt Dayes kept bashing away at the Orange, rushing for 108 yards on 27 carries and three scores, his final touchdown clinching it with less than five minutes remaining.
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A week after a hard-to-accept loss at home to Florida State, the Pack (5-5, 2-4 ACC) rebounded to move a step closer to being bowl eligible.
“I’m very proud of the resiliency of our football team (after) losing four of our five games by a possession,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “They’ve been able to stick together and I’m really proud of what they did.
“It’s not easy playing on the road. The building got loud and there were some tough moments.”
The Orange crowd of 34,842 was at its loudest in the third quarter after the Pack had moved ahead 21-10 when Finley hit Kelvin Harmon with a quick slant and Harmon bounced off two defensive backs to bolt 68 yards for a score.
Syracuse quarterback Zack Mahoney, starting for the injured Eric Dungey, first gunned an 81-yard touchdown pass to Amba Etta-Tawo to pull Syracuse within 21-17. The Orange’s Sean Riley then blocked a punt by the Pack’s A.J. Cole, Syracuse taking over at the NCSU 17.
But Mahoney, a junior who played against the Wolfpack last year, lost three yards. A pass was incomplete and a third-down completion to Etta-Tawo lost a yard. Cole Murphy kicked a 39-yard field goal but the Pack still had the lead.
“That was a critical part of the game, possibly the turning point for them,” Doeren said.
Another came later in the third quarter, when the Pack was backed up to its 14 after a 50-yard punt by the Orange’s Sterling Hofrichter, who had some boomers.
Four times the Pack had third-down plays and four times Finley made the right throws to the right receivers for first downs — Bra’Lon Cherry for 9 yards, Harmon for 11, Nyheim Hines for 11 and then Jaylen Samuels for 18 on third-and-12 at the Syracuse 42.
Dayes scored from 20 yards on a quick burst around right end to finish off a 14-play, 86-yard drive. The Pack led 28-20.
“The receivers made some plays today,” Finley said. “Kelvin made a really nice play on that slant he took to the house. We just caught some contested balls on third down, which was really good to see.”
The Pack had 544 yards in total offense and converted 10 of 18 third-down plays, finishing with more than 41 minutes in possession time. N.C. State ran 82 plays to 52 for the Orange, which had 28 yards rushing and 218 total.
It hurt the Orange that Dungey couldn’t play after being hit and injured last week in the Orange’s 54-0 loss at Clemson. Dungey has six 300-yard passing games this season for Syracuse (4-6, 2-4 ACC), and was out throwing the ball before the game, before the players put on their pads.
Mahoney, a junior, led the Orange to a quick score to begin the game, Dontae Strickland running for 10 yards, in the Orange’s ultra-fast scheme. But after a three-and-out series by the Pack, Mahoney went deep on the first play of the next possession and the Pack’s Jack Tocho came down with an interception on the sideline throw.
“Obviously we were at a disadvantage without Eric and missed him a great deal,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. “But we were playing well into the fourth quarter with a chance to win. North Carolina State did a really nice job. They had a really physical offensive line and they really controlled possession.”
The Pack has enjoyed its trips to Syracuse — its now 5-0 against the Orange. N.C. State also has won nine of 10 games overall.
The Pack has two games left this season, at home against Miami next week and then at North Carolina. Both will be Senior Days — for the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium, then the Tar Heels in Kenan Stadium.
“We took some tough losses, some heart-breakers,” Dayes said. “To get this one erases a lot of the bad that happened to us and gives us confidence going into next week. It’s really important for us to win the next two.”