State survives its own mistakes, Syracuse for seventh win

Bailey Hockman overcame a near-disastrous first half to throw for four touchdowns in leading NC State to a 36-29 victory

Thayer Thomas catches the first of his three touchdown passes in NC State's 33-29 win at Syracuse on Saturday (Dennis Nett/ vis ACC photo pool)

The NC State football team did everything it could to give the game to Syracuse in the first half on Saturday. But in the end, it was the Orange that gave the Wolfpack the biggest gift of all.

State survived its own mistakes and a late Syracuse attempt at sending the game into overtime when Orange quarterback Rex Culpepper spiked the ball to stop the clock as time was running, not realizing it was fourth down. The mental mistake, which was preceded by a Payton Wilson sack, helped the Wolfpack preserve a 36-29 victory at the Carrier Dome.

State quarterback Bailey Hockman bounced back from a first half in which he turned the ball over twice and gave up a safety to throw for a career-high 313 yards and four touchdowns to lead his team to its third straight win and seventh overall. Thayer Thomas caught three of the scoring passes, but it was a 26-yard strike to Emeka Emezie with 14:14 remaining that finally put the Wolfpack over the top against a Syracuse team that has won just once in 10 games this season.

State outscored the Orange 22-7 in the second half but left the door open by failing on a pair of two-point conversion attempts.

Syracuse’s last chance to send the game into overtime got as far as the Wolfpack 7-yard line with less than 30 seconds remaining. But Culpepper didn’t get rid of the ball on third down, then lost track of the situation on what turned out to be his team’s final play to help State preserve the win.

Three thoughts

1. Coach Dave Doeren was admittedly upset with his team after a first half that saw Wolfpack mistakes contribute to 15 of Syracuse’s 22 points, but just as it has on several occasions this season, the team rose to the occasion.

State scored on its first two possessions of the second half to regain the lead, then answered right back after the Orange went ahead again. With Wilson, fellow linebacker Isaiah Moore, safety Tanner Ingle, and defensive end Daniel Joseph leading the way, State held Syracuse to just 111 total yards — and just two yards on the ground — during the final 30 minutes.

2. Doeren likes to talk about playing complementary football, meaning that all three phases contribute equally to the effort. The Wolfpack certainly did that in the first half, but not in a positive way.

Mistakes on offense, defense and special teams contributed to a 22-14 halftime deficit against a team that came into the game ranked last in the ACC in scoring offense at just 16.2 points per game. The offensive mistakes included a fumble by Hockman just as he was going into the end zone for an apparent touchdown, an interception that led to a Syracuse, and a safety given away when the State quarterback threw the ball out of his own end zone as he was sacked.

The defense broke down in the form of a 60-yard touchdown pass from Culpepper to Nykeim Johnson, while the special teams contributed a momentum-changing 98-yard touchdown return on the kickoff following a touchdown on the Wolfpack’s opening drive.

3. The Wolfpack decided to chase the two points given up on the safety after it scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half — on a 31-yard pass from Hockman to Thomas — but failed. Later in the third quarter, Doeren went for two again. And again, it failed.

”(The chart) said to go for two in the first half, and we said we wouldn’t do it until the second,” Doeren said. “I told the team at halftime we’re going to score on the drive and go for two and tie the game. I think it was the right thing to do. It allows you to know earlier in the half what you’re playing for as the game goes on. I’d rather do that than wait until the end.”

Number to Know

3 — The number of calls that were reversed upon review during the game, all of which went against the Wolfpack. The first was came early when Ricky Person Jr. turned a swing pass into what was originally called a 66-yard touchdown pass on the game’s second play. The score was nullified, however, when it was ruled that Person stepped out of bounds near midfield. State lost another apparent touchdown when it was ruled that Hockman lost control of the ball before hitting the pylon on a 12-yard run later in the first quarter. The third reversal came when replay showed that Syracuse’s Taj Harris got his foot in bounds on a 26-yard pass to convert a third down and extend the Orange’s final drive.

Player of the Game

Thayer Thomas, NC State wide receiver — After going without a catch in last week’s win against Liberty, Thomas bounced back in a big way with nine receptions for 102 yards and three touchdowns to help beat the Orange. The former walk-on became the first Wolfpack player to have three receiving touchdowns in a game since Jaylen Samuels turned the feat against Vanderbilt in the 2016 Music City Bowl.

They said it

“I’m like, he really just spiked it on fourth-and-goal. Like, whoa. It was kind of shocking to me. I thought they were going to try to throw it in the end zone. It was just a mental mistake, but hey, it won us the game so I was happy with it.”

— State linebacker Payton Wilson on the critical mistake by Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper

Critical Thinking

State has a long tradition of losing games it has no business losing and for nearly three quarters Saturday, it appeared that history was going to repeat itself against the 1-9 Orange. But as it has on several other occasions this season, coach Dave Doeren and his player proved that this is a different breed of Wolfpack.

After a series of self-inflcted mistakes, State found a way to bounce back in the second half and made enough plays to rally for the victory that improved its record t0 7-3 (6-3 ACC) with one game remaining in the regular season. The Wolfpack’s resilience has been remarkable this season, especially coming on the heels of last year’s 4-8 disaster. It’s a toughness embodied by Hockman, who used the lessons learned from a career that has taken him from Florida State to junior college to the Wolfpack to bounce back from a near-disastrous first half and lead his team to victory.