At 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, Jaylen Samuels is listed as a tight end/fullback on N.C. State’s football roster. You could have fooled the folks at Independence Stadium on Monday.
The Wolfpack junior displayed plenty of speed and a nose for the end zone as he hauled in an Independence Bowl-record three touchdown passes in N.C. State’s dominating 41-17 victory against Vanderbilt.
“I’m a football player,” Samuels said, when asked what position he truly plays.
Samuels’ effort led to the Offensive Player of the Game honor and helped N.C. State finally beat the SEC. Monday’s victory was the Wolfpack’s first win against an SEC team since beating South Carolina in 1999.
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“That means a lot for us to be the team that does it,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “These guys believed in each other when other people didn’t. That’s what happens when you stick it out in a fight.”
Samuels had six catches for 104 yards on Monday.
“I’ve been feeling all week like I was ready to break out – like we as a team were ready to break out,” he said. “We all came out and did what we were supposed to do.”
The Wolfpack victory handed the SEC its first Independence Bowl loss since 2006 (Oklahoma State defeated Alabama, 34-31 -- the year before Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama).
“That’s huge – it’s a great feeling for everybody,” Wolfpack senior center Joe Scelfo said. “We wanted that one so bad. We were so focused from the day we found out what bowl we were playing and who we were playing.”
N.C. State was boosted by a gaggle of big plays on both sides of the ball and special teams. Nyheim Hines tied a bowl record with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Niles Clark capped the victory with a 32-yard pick-6 on the final play of the game
“It seemed like kickoff returns showed up when we needed,” said Hines, whose score came after Vanderbilt pulled within 11 points (28-17) early in the fourth quarter. “I reached top speed; just getting ready for indoor track in January.”
The victory helped the Wolfpack (7-6) finish with a winning record for the third consecutive year.
“We have tremendous momentum heading into the offseason,” Doeren said. “I talked to a recruit in the locker room and was able to tell him we’re one of the hottest teams in the country.”
Quarterback Ryan Finley finished the game 19 of 30 passing for 235 yards. His three scoring tosses to Samuels helped him tie six others for the Independence Bowl record for passing TDs.
His goal was simple.
“Get (Samuels) the ball as many ways as possible,” the sophomore said.
The Wolfpack picked off Vandy quarterback Kyle Shurmur three times, sacked him five times and held him to 158 passing yards. Running back Ralph Webb was the only bright spot (111 yards, TD on 21 carries) for the Commodores.
“You have no idea what a pain in the butt Vanderbilt’s offense is with all their shifts and motions,” Doeren said. “We crammed 12 weeks of film study; at times it seemed like the defensive coaches were teaching arithmetic. And we still made those guys have to earn those yards.”
Junior linebacker Airius Moore earned Defensive Player of the Game honors with nine tackles, including two sacks.
Vanderbilt (6-7) began the scoring with a 52-yard field goal by Tommy Openshaw midway through the first quarter. The kick topped the previous record of 50 yards and matched Openshaw’s career best.
The Commodores’ defense was tough early. Vandy forced a Matt Dayes fumble on N.C. State’s first possession and the nation’s No. 1 red-zone defense stopped Dayes on fourth-and-goal from the 1 late in the first quarter.
The Wolfpack’s first spark came on defense when Trae Meadows picked off Kyle Shurmur at Vandy’s 41 early in the second quarter. N.C. State took advantage of the short field and capped a touchdown drive with a 9-yard strike from Finley to Samuels.
“We looked a little rusty,” Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason said. “We just didn’t look like the same Vanderbilt that finished the season strong. But they had as much time off as we did.”
The Wolfpack stretched its lead with Samuels’ second score, a 55-yard touchdown off a screen pass late in the first half.
The second half provided much of the same for N.C. State. The Wolfpack got an immediate jolt when Josh Jones intercepted to stop Vandy’s first possession of the second half.
The Wolfpack made good on the turnover when Reggie Gallaspy rumbled in from 5 yards out to help N.C. State take a 21-3 lead.
Samuels’ third touchdown catch, an Independence Bowl record, came midway through the third quarter when he took another screen and traveled 17 yards.
A 30-yard rushing touchdown by Webb late in the third helped the Dores pull within 28-10. A 71-yard punt return by Kalija Lipscomb and a 1-yard plunge by Khari Blasingame with 10:37 remaining pulled the Commodores within 28-17 and offered hope.
Hines quickly extinguished that with his dagger on the ensuing kickoff.
This was the team Doeren saw when the Wolfpack were 4-1 with a potential game-winning field goal to win at Clemson.
“We just didn’t finish,” Doeren said. “The guys learned the hard way and sometimes you have to go through that. We had the highest of highs and lowest of lows. A lot of stuff happens in 12-week season that nobody knows about.”
Note: Dayes was in search of an N.C. State record Monday. A 100-yard rushing game would have been the senior’s ninth of the season – a mark that would have tied the school record. However, Dayes suffered an early fumble and another close call late in the first quarter. He spent the second half on the sideline without a helmet. He finished with 47 yards on nine carries.
“He’s fine,” Doeren said of Dayes’ health.