N.C. State defensive end Art Norman stood near the victory podium late Friday night at Tropicana Field, smiling, happy, ready to celebrate but also a bit wistful.
Norman is a graduate student. The Wolfpack’s 34-27 victory over Central Florida in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl came in his last college game, and for him, it was both satisfying and a bit sad.
On the podium, Wolfpack quarterback Jacoby Brissett was accepting the MVP award. Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren clutched the bowl trophy. In a year’s time, the Wolfpack went from a 3-9 football team looking for answers to an 8-5 team with a bowl win.
“I can’t even explain it,” Norman said. “Going from last year, sitting at home on Christmas, three wins, to this year and even being in a bowl, let alone win the bowl, is huge.
“It’s a huge stepping stone for this program. I’m excited. I’m also sad it’s my last game. I’m feeling everything.”
For the Wolfpack, winning the bowl game was like winning a road game. Much of the crowd wore UCF shirts and Doeren was quick to note after the game that many expected the Knights to win.
But Brissett was too good, passing for 262 yards and a touchdown while scrambling for big plays. Running back Shadrach Thornton rushed for 96 yards and threw a touchdown pass to freshman fullback Jaylen Samuels for the Wolfpack’s first score. Matt Dayes also had a pair of rushing touchdowns with quick bursts against a UCF defense that ranked among the nation’s best.
The Wolfpack led 17-10 at the half and built the margin to 34-13 in the fourth quarter before the Knights scored twice to make things interesting. UCF quarterback Justin Holman connected with wideout Josh Reese for three touchdowns in the game as the Knights tried to repeat their thriller at East Carolina – Holman’s deep “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to Breshad Perriman for a 32-30 victory.
But it was not to be. N.C. State’s Tyler Purvis grabbed a late onside kick, and the Wolfpack soon was celebrating.
“This should give us a lot of momentum going into next year,” Samuels said. “This is basically the start of next year. We got the ‘W’ for next year.”
The Wolfpack will miss Norman, a team co-captain this season. They will miss other seniors and graduates such as linebacker Rodman Noel, defensive linemen Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill, running back Tony Creecy, offensive linemen Rob Crisp and Tyson Chandler and kickers Niklas Sade and Wil Baumann.
But Brissett will be back for his senior season. Thornton, Dayes and so many players will return – and with higher expectations.
Doeren said after the Pack’s 35-7 victory over North Carolina that he protected Brissett during the regular season, limiting his runs and risk of injury. But he put Brissett on full display in the UNC game, and it was more of the same in the bowl, leading to the question: Should Doeren have let Brissett do more this season?
“I think our plan worked. He played 13 games,” Doeren said. “Our offense has good backs, and we want to feature them, as well. He runs enough on his own. It would be different maybe if he wasn’t a scrambler like he is at times. Next year we’ll see if that’s a bigger part of the package or not.”
Brissett also caught a 20-yard pass from Bo Hines, Doren noting, “We’ve been running that play (in practice) for months, and he was begging for it on the sideline.”
The Pack finished with 187 rushing yards against the Knights (9-4) and passed for 300 yards. UCF had 373 yards in total offense – 168 in the fourth quarter.
“It was just a great win for the program and for the seniors,” Brissett said. “The way we finished off the season was an opportunity to reward the players for all their hard work.”
As for the seasons to come, Doeren believes a foundation is being built for sustained success.
“We went from three to eight wins, we won four of the last five, we’re recruiting really well, we redshirted some good players, we have great senior leadership,” he said. “We were the third-youngest team in college football, and we got better as the year went on. So I think that points in the right direction for a lot of things.”