Wolfpack routs Syracuse to keep Atlantic hopes alive

NC State bounces back from its loss at Wake Forest by getting touchdowns from its offense, defense and special teams in a 41-17 victory

Drake Thomas (32) returns an interception for a touchdown against Syracuse during the first half of NC State's win against Syracuse on Saturday (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker)

RALEIGH — NC State wasted an opportunity to take control of the ACC Atlantic Division last week at Wake Forest.

Given a reprieve by the Deacons, who lost earlier in the day at Clemson, the Wolfpack wasn’t about to give away another opportunity.

Coach Dave Doeren’s 20th-ranked team still needs some help to win its first ever division title and a trip to the conference championship game in Charlotte, but it kept its hopes alive Saturday with a convincing 41-17 victory against Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium.

“They were disappointed, upset, mad, all of the above (about) losing last week’s game,” Doeren said. “They knew that there were plays we left on the field. They’re also a smart bunch of guys knowing … we weren’t out of it. It was just a matter of getting back to what we can control, that was winning out at home. Right now we’re one game away from doing that off.”

State (8-3, 5-2 ACC)  must beat rival North Carolina and hope for a Wake loss at Boston College next week to forge a three-way tie with Clemson for the Atlantic title. It would then advance to the championship game on tie-breakers.

The Wolfpack put itself in that position by playing perhaps its most complete game of the season.

It got touchdowns from its offense, defense and special teams — all on consecutive possessions in the second quarter — while doing a solid job of containing Syracuse’s Sean Tucker, the ACC’s leading rusher.

Quarterback Devin Leary threw touchdown passes to Christopher Toudle and Thayer Thomas while Ricky Person Jr. ran for a touchdown. 

Thomas’ younger brother Drake also got into the end zone on a 38-yard interception return while Zonovan Knight ran a kickoff back for a touchdown for the second straight game, this one for 97 yards.

“That’s what complementary football is,” Doeren said. “It’s setting up either side of the ball, it’s gaining momentum with special teams play. We’ve talked so much about it and the guys have embraced it.

“It’s not just playing complementary football, it’s doing it at the right times and having sequential plays and drives off each other, feeding each other. That (second) quarter was as good as it could be.”

As was the case last week in its loss at Wake, the Wolfpack offense took its time getting started.  The difference this time is that the defense kept the game scoreless until Leary and Co. could finally get going.

That happened during the final six minutes of the half when Leary connected with Thayer Thomas for a 49-yard completion to the Syracuse 15. One play later, Person bounced outside and outran the defense into the end zone for State’s first rushing touchdown since a win against Louisiana Tech, seven games ago.

Drake Thomas extended the lead two plays later with his pick six. Then after Syracuse answered back on a 55-yard run by Tucker, Knight fielded the ensuing kickoff and knifed through the Orange for his third quarter touchdown return.

But the Wolfpack wasn’t through. 

Not satisfied with sitting on its lead, State turned the second half into a formality by driving 80 yards on four plays in the final 1:05 of the half to increase its lead to 28-7 on a 14-yard pass from Leary to Thayer Thomas with eight seconds remaining.

“It was really just getting into a rhythm,” Leary said of the late second quarter offensive awakening. “Syracuse does a whole bunch of different looks on defense and we tried to practice as many during the week. 

“When it comes to the game, they’re always going to throw a curveball and that’s kind of what they did. Being able to get back to the sideline and make our adjustments helped us respond better.”

The touchdown pass to Thomas made Thayer and Drake the first set of brothers to score touchdowns in the same season for the Wolfpack since Don and Dave Buckey in 1975.

“Just thinking about where me and my older brother have come from, it’s a dream come true to make plays like that on a big stage,” Drake Thomas said. “It’s just a great feeling.”

“It was just a special moment and a great team win to cap it off,” Thayer Thomas added.

Leary finished the night 17 of 24 for 303 yades and two touchdowns. The Wolfpack also ran the ball for 98 yards on 28 carries — 14 more than it attempted against the 13th-ranked run defense at Wake last week.

Defensively, State limited Syracuse (5-6, 2-5) to 236 total yards,103 of which came on two plays — Tucker’s long run in the first half and a 48-yard scramble by quarterback Garrett Shrader long after the issue was decided late in the game.

The Wolfpack sacked Shrader five times and held him to 63 yards through the air on 8 of 20 passing.

“We were trying to get them behind the chains and seeing if they could throw the ball down the field to win, which we didn’t think they could,” Doeren said. “That proved to be right.”