N.C. State got what it needed on Friday, North Carolina got another loss to an in-state rival.
Jaylen Samuels threw for a touchdown and ran for one to lead the Wolfpack to a 28-21 upset of UNC at Kenan Stadium.
N.C. State (6-6, 3-5 ACC) needed a win to get back to a bowl game for the third straight year. The Wolfpack ran for 259 yards and led by 21 points twice before holding on late for its fourth win in the past five trips to Chapel Hill.
After a series a close calls and tough losses, N.C. State was elated to pick up its sixth win and to do so at UNC’s expense.
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“There’s a lot of games we should have won (this year),” said N.C. State running back Matt Dayes, who ran for 104 yards. “But we were thankful we were able to finish this one.”
UNC (8-4, 5-3) got three touchdown passes from quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and a big game from receiver Ryan Switzer (13 catches, 171 yards, one touchdown) but it couldn’t avoid another upset loss to a Triangle rival.
Combined with Duke’s 28-27 win on Nov. 10, UNC’s now 5-5 under coach Larry Fedora against the Wolfpack and Blue Devils.
Trubisky’s 48-yard touchdown pass to receiver Bug Howard cut N.C. State’s lead to 28-21 at 7:52 in the fourth quarter.
After its defense forced a three-and-out, UNC had the ball and chance to tie it up but was stopped on downs near midfield.
“Bottom line is that we didn’t make enough of the ordinary plays that we usually make to win a football game,” Fedora said.
N.C. State took over with 3:10 on the clock and picked up two first downs to run the clock out. Dayes finished with 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Sophomore running back Reggie Gallaspy added 62 yards on 10 carries.
“We ran the ball a lot and they couldn’t really stop us on the run game,” Samuels said.
While N.C. State ran at will, UNC gained 133 yards — a year after running for 377 in a 45-34 win in Raleigh.
“We thought if we could win the first quarter, and then just be physical after that the rest of the game on both sides, that we’d have a great chance to win,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
The win, Doeren said, wasn’t about the bowl game or even besting a rival, but about a reward for the players, who have endured difficult, emotional losses to Clemson, Florida State and East Carolina this season.
“It definitely makes you feel the worth of all your work,” Doeren said.
Samuels’ 4-yard touchdown run after a grinding 14-play, 85-yard drive, gave N.C. State a 28-7 lead at 8:22 in the third quarter.
The margin turned out to be too much for the Tar Heels to overcome after a series of penalties, dropped passes and failed risks.
Down 21-7 at the half, Fedora called an onside kick to open the second half. UNC receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams recovered the kick, which caught N.C. State by surprise, but an illegal procedure penalty after a video review, forced a re-kick and N.C. State made the most of the second chance.
The Wolfpack drove 85 yards, with a mix of strong running and timely passes to freshman receiver Jakobi Meyers. By the time Samuels scored, the Wolfpack had chewed up 6 minutes and 30 seconds of clock time.
UNC responded on its next drive by getting all the way down to N.C. State’s 8-yard line but another gamble by Fedora came up empty.
Fedora called for a run with T.J. Logan, instead of Elijah Hood, on third-and-1 from the 8 and N.C. State’s defense stopped Logan for a 1-yard loss.
On fourth down, Switzer took a pitch from the slot and then attempted to throw the ball back to Trubisky but the throw was out of Trubisky’s reach.
“You can’t put yourself behind the eight ball that way and continue to make those mistakes throughout the day and think you’re going to overcome them.”
N.C. State stormed out of the gate to a 21-0 lead. Offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz emptied the playbook with a double-pass from Samuels to receiver Stephen Louis for a 59-yard touchdown on the opening possession.
A fumble by Trubisky at his own 29-yard line set up the Wolfpack’s second touchdown. Dayes punched in a 1-yard run to cap off a quick four-play drive.
Dayes scored again, on an 18-yarder, out of a “wildcat” formation on fourth-and-1 to put N.C. State ahead 21-0.
UNC punted on three of its first four drives and fumbled on the other. For the half, UNC had seven first downs and punted five times. The Tar Heels only punted once in last year’s win.
It was clear from the start, this wasn’t a repeat of last year’s game. And it was clear after so many close calls, N.C. State was intent on finishing the job.
“We knew what we had to do to get to a bowl game and a sixth win,” defensive end Bradley Chubb said. “We just went out there with the same mentality and we executed everything that we could and played to the best of our ability.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio