N.C. State wanted a nice bowl win to cap a turnaround season.
The Wolfpack got just that win Friday in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field, stopping Central Florida 34-27 in a game that showcased N.C. State’s speed and execution as well as the Pack’s determination and aggressiveness.
Quarterback Jacoby Brissett ran and passed – and even caught a pass. Shadrach Thornton ran and ran – and passed for a touchdown. Matt Dayes scored twice with quick bursts up the middle, and Jaylen Samuels and Johnathan Alston each had touchdown catches as the Wolfpack finished 8-5.
"It was a great season with a really, really strong finish," N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. "Obviously we're headed in the right direction."
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The Wolfpack defense did its part against UCF, giving up some plays but making some plays. UCF quarterback Justin Holman had three touchdown passes to senior wideout Josh Reese, and the third pulled the Knights – who trailed 34-13 in the fourth quarter – within seven points.
UCF used a last-second "Hail Mary" to beat East Carolina 32-30 in its final regular-season game, earning a share of the American Athletic Conference title. UCF fans, who made up most of the crowd of 26,675 Friday, were hoping for another last-gasp comeback but the Pack’s Tyler Purvis recovered the Knights’ onside kick at the UCF 46 and N.C. State ran out the clock.
"They did a good job coming back but we were able to finish," Doeren said.
Brissett, named the bowl's MVP, was 15-of-26 passing for 262 yards, connecting with Alston for a 37-yard score in the second quarter. Brissett, as he did against North Carolina, hurt the Knights (9-4) with timely runs.
Thornton had 96 yards on 17 carries, plus an 18-yard TD pass to Samuels, and Dayes -- who had scoring runs of 24 and 15 yards -- finished with 78 yards. The Pack had 487 yards in total offense against a UCF defense that ranked among the nation's best.
"It was a great win for the program and the seniors," said Brissett, a junior. "This should spring-board us into next season. This just shows the level we can (reach). That's a great program we beat. It shows you where we can go."
The Pack, 3-9 last season in Doeren's first year as coach, had a 4-0 start, lost four in a row, then then notched November wins over Syracuse, Wake Forest and North Carolina to become bowl eligible this season. N.C. State ripped UNC 35-7 in its last game, but Doeren was equally as proud of the effort against Wake.
"The guys bought in, last offseason, and worked to be mentally and physically tough," Doeren said. "A lot of people were a part of it and a lot of players made plays throughout the season. This is just the beginning."
The first half had more good plays than bad for the Pack, which led 17-10 at the break despite some late stumbles.
The Wolfpack surprised the Knights early when Thornton gunned the pass to Samuels, who was well-covered. But Thornton had some zip on the throw and Samuels made a tough running catch on the right side of the end zone.
"We had been practicing that in bowl practices and I knew when the play was called I had to go up and make a play," Samuels said.
It was Thornton's first career pass and the Pack's first TD pass by a non-quarterback in a bowl game since fullback Ledel George threw a 52-yarder in the 1992 Peach Bowl.
Brissett had more big pass completions on N.C. State’s final two possessions of the half. But the Pack squandered opportunities on both.
On the first possession, Brissett hit Bo Hines for 33 yards on third-and-22, and later 45 yards to the UCF 4. But the Knights twice stopped Thornton runs and Niklas Sade’s field goal boosted the lead to 17-10.
The Pack reached the UCF 15 in the final minute of the first half. But Brissett was sacked on third down, and with the Pack out of timeouts, time ran out on N.C. State.
As if to make up for the mistake, Brissett led the Pack 75 yards in nine plays for a touchdown to begin the second half. He ran for a first down, then threw to Alston for another. Dayes scored his first TD and N.C. State had a 24-10 lead.
The Knights scored on the opening possession of the game, getting a 40-yard field goal from Shawn Moffitt, and took a 10-7 lead in the second quarter. Holman rifled a low 6-yard throw to Reese on third-and-goal for the score.
Brissett twice fumbled on the Pack’s second possession of the second half. UCF recovered the second at NCSU’s 34 – the first turnover of the game – and another Moffitt field goal pulled the Knights within 24-13.
The Knights were 12-1 a year ago, topping Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl – the school’s first BCS bowl appearance. Quarterback Blake Bortles left early for the NFL, but the Knights won nine games this season.
"I have to give credit to N.C. State for making plays," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "I thought they played very well and we would have liked to have played better.
"We had a lot of opportunities that we did not take advantage of. They made first downs out of broken plays and that was the difference in the game."