It was a bad day for the ACC but not N.C. State.
Quarterback Ryan Finley did his usual thing, the surprising defense made a few key plays and new kicker Chris Dunn made the field goals he needed to make. It added up to a 37-20 road win for the Wolfpack at Marshall on Saturday night to improve to 3-0 on the season
“I think we’ve handled our business,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “That’s all you can do.”
And it’s more than most ACC teams (other than Clemson) can say. There were pitfalls and embarrassing stumbles all across the league on Saturday.
Just on the Atlantic Division side, Boston College celebrated its return to the top 25 for the first time since 2008 with a 30-13 loss to a previously winless Big Ten team (Purdue). Wake Forest, whose offense had looked sharp in the first three weeks, got pasted at home by Notre Dame (56-27). Louisville was completely inept in a 27-3 loss at Virginia, proving once again just how special Lamar Jackson was.
And if the Wolfpack needed a cautionary tale about taking a Conference USA team lightly on the road, No. 13 Virginia Tech -- a 29-point favorite -- lost 49-35 at Old Dominion on Saturday.
None of which really mattered to N.C. State when it took the field after 7 p.m. The Wolfpack, after an unscheduled week off, was focused on the task at hand. Finley threw for 377 yards and a touchdown while senior running back Reggie Gallaspy had his best game of the young season with 81 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
The defense had a pair of interceptions in the second half, including a “pick six” by safety Jarius Morehead.
“I thought it was a really good team win,” Doeren said. “The offense, when the defense needed them to step up, did it every time. The defense, when the offense needed them to step up, did it every time.”
The defense has been a pleasant surprise through three games. West Virginia would have been a truer test but that game was canceled last week due to Hurricane Florence. Maybe it’s only James Madison, Georgia State and Marshall but N.C. State’s defense has given up 33 points on the season.
After losing eight starters, including all four up front to the NFL, from last year’s team the defense wasn’t supposed to be a strength this season. It has certainly bent at times on Saturday, an 82-yard touchdown catch by Marcel Williams in the first half wasn’t great, but it made the plays it needed to.
Marshall receiver Tyre Brady set a Carter-Finley Stadium last year with 248 receiving yards. He had 25 (on three catches) on Saturday. N.C. State’s secondary, a weak spot last season, was tired of hearing about Brady’s exploits from last year’s game (also a 37-20 N.C. State win) in Raleigh.
“We know what he did to us last year,” Morehead said. “We took it personal.”
On the subject of problems from last year (and the year before and the year before), Dunn has addressed the biggest. The freshman kicker made field goals from 30, 32 and 26 in the first half. Those kind of layups, to stretch out a lead, have been the exact type of kicks N.C. State hasn’t been able to make since the 2014 season.
Dunn did miss a 31-yarder in the rain in the fourth quarter but he’s 6 of 8 on the season through three games (N.C. State was 10 of 20 in 13 games last season and 9 of 17 in 2016).
Marshall needed a special-teams boost to get back in the game after falling behind 23-7 at the half. After a 29-yard field at 9:20 in the third quarter, Marshall scored a touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.
Linebacker Jaquan Yulee blasted N.C. State returner C.J. Riley near the 15-yard line on the kickoff. Riley fell to the ground and the ball flew out. Artis Johnson picked it up for the Herd and returned it 22 yards for the score.
With its lead trimmed to 23-17, N.C. State had the perfect response. Finley led a six-play, 75-yard drive in just 1 minute and 47 seconds. A 30-yard touchdown pass from Finley to sophomore receiver Emeka Emezie pushed the Wolfpack’s lead back to 30-17.
“I thought the guys responded,” Doeren said. “That’s what I’m most proud of. It seemed like every time they got momentum, we just -- bam -- went right back on them.”
Marshall forced a punt and got the ball back down 30-20 but Morehead’s 57-yard interception return salted the game away.
It was a long day for many teams in the ACC on Saturday but that’s not N.C. State’s problem with the ACC opener (vs. Virginia) up next.
“We are right where we want to be,” Doeren said.