So much can change in a year. In the case of N.C. State and Syracuse, almost enough for you to not recognize the game of football.
There were 92 points and 1,102 yards of offense in last year’s game between N.C. State and Syracuse. There were 600 yards in punts on Thursday night.
N.C. State won what was part defensive struggle and part offensive ineptitude. Eight sacks and consistent pressure led to the Wolfpack’s 16-10 win, its first in ACC game and fourth of the season.
“We got a ‘W,’” N.C. State quarterback Bailey Hockman said. “That’s what it’s about, no matter what the score was.”
Hockman is right but it was almost a different sport from last year’s game in the Carrier Dome in New York.
The Orange won that game on the strength of an outstanding game from their quarterback. Eric Dungey threw for 411 yards and accounted for four touchdowns.
This wasn’t Dungey and N.C. State’s All-ACC quarterback Ryan Finley trading paint in the dome. The rematch was a punt fest, 13 in all with Syracuse’ Sterling Hofrichter and N.C. State’s Trenton Gill playing a game of “anything you can do, I can do better.”
N.C. State’s defense was better than Syracuse’s. The Wolfpack offense, even after a quarterback change, didn’t look much different than it had in the first five games of the season. It had almost as many field goals (three) as third-down conversions (four).
“It was definitely a defensive battle,” said N.C. State receiver Thayer Thomas, who threw the Wolfpack’s only touchdown pass.
The loss to Syracuse last year, actually convinced N.C. State coach Dave Doeren that he needed to change his defensive alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5.
“That was why we did that to be able to handle the tempo, four-wide spread offenses and have the ability to roll coverages and blitz more,” Doeren said.
Even with a banged up secondary, depleted by another starter with the loss of cornerback Chris Ingram to an apparent leg injury in the second quarter, N.C. State’s defense was able to mostly hold new Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito (29 of 39, 300 yards) in check.
They were definitely able to pressure DeVito and force him into situations his offensive line couldn’t handle. Linebacker Louis Acceus had three sacks and defensive tackle Larrell Murchison had two. As a team, N.C. State has 16 sacks in the past two ACC games, both high-tempo spread offense.
“So it’s working,” Doeren said. “There’s still some things we’d like to do better.”
He couldn’t have asked for much more from his defense. Syracuse looked a lot like N.C. State did in its two road losses this season with ill-timed penalties (12 for 59 yards) and undisciplined mistakes.
There was no pop to the Orange offense in the first three quarters. N.C. State wasn’t exactly clicking on all cylinders (or even more than one) but it did run for 104 yards, compared to 41 for Syracuse, and mostly avoid the mental mistakes and penalties.
“Winning right now feels so great,” Thomas said. “I don’t know what it is. I just feel like every win is a hard thing to do right now.”
It wasn’t particularly aesthetically pleasing, although beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.
“That was a fantastic game between two football teams battling,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said.
Fantastic for punters, for sure. Everyone else either at Carter-Finley Stadium or watching the ESPN showcase game? Not so much but it was a much-needed boost for N.C. State’s confidence after the FSU disappointment.
If it wasn’t clear before, it should be now. It’s not last year anymore. The best thing N.C. State can do with its young and increasingly banged-up team is figure out a clear path forward to bowl eligibility.
That became easier with Thursday’s win, no matter how it looked.