To beat Louisville, N.C. State needed to be able to slow, stymie, contain or frustrate Lamar Jackson, the Cardinals’ 2016 Heisman Trophy winner.
The Pack didn’t stop Jackson – few, if any, can. But No. 24 N.C. State made it a tough enough night for the junior quarterback to take a 39-25 victory Thursday over the 17th-ranked Cardinals at Carter-Finley Stadium, picking up a fifth straight win.
“You can just feel it right now in our locker room,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “They just believe they’re the best team, and they’re playing hard and they’re playing together and they’re tough. And it’s fun. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it.”
Quarterback Ryan Finley, efficient much of the night after an early fumble, passed for 367 yards, completing 20 of 31 throws, for the Pack, 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2002. Nyheim Hines had another 100-yard rushing game while receivers Kelvin Harmon and Jaylen Samuels each had more than 100 yards in receptions.
“It was a really solid win and I’m excited for our team and the culture we’re building,” Finley said. “We’re definitely in a rhythm right now and hopefully it continues.
“The culture we’re building is changing. We’ve been through a lot since I’ve been here and even before I got here. I think we’re approaching every game differently and playing with a chip on our shoulder.”
While the Cardinals (4-2, 1-2 ACC) never led, Jackson tried to make things interesting late in the game. His 3-yard scoring run, after a 65-yard pass to receiver Seth Dawkins, pulled the Cards within 32-25 with 4:10 left.
The Cards had one last chance, but Pack linebacker Germaine Pratt’s 25-yard interception return for a touchdown clinched it for the Pack with 2:52 remaining. Pratt picked off a tipped pass and wouldn’t be stopped, bowling over Jackson at the goal line.
“I just seized the moment and took advantage of my opportunity,” Pratt said.
Asked about his collision with Jackson, Pratt said, “That’s the quarterback. He’s not going to tackle me.”
Jackson completed 26 of 47 throws for 354 yards and rushed for 73. But the yards were hard-earned, and they weren’t enough.
“That guy, he’s electric, he’s fast, he can do a lot of things with his feet and his arm,” said the Pack’s Bradley Chubb. “We just had to contain him the best we could.”
It was the first time a ranked N.C. State team had hosted a ranked opponent at Carter-Finley since 2000, when the Pack faced No. 6 Florida State. To put that in perspective, Philip Rivers was a freshman quarterback for the Pack that season.
A year ago, the Cardinals led 44-0 at halftime and routed the Pack 54-13. But this is a different season, a different N.C. State team.
The Pack hit the Cards with big plays. Finley had a 48-yard touchdown throw to Harmon, who had six catches for 133 yards. Samuels had a 79-yard catch and run, finishing with seven grabs for 104 yards. Stephen Louis had a 39-yard catch and Hines a 45-yard run two plays before scoring late in the third quarter.
The Wolfpack had 334 yards in total offense in leading 17-10 at the half as Finley completed 11 of 16 passes for 268 yards and his receivers – whether it be Harmon, Louis or Samuels – made sure-handed catches and nice plays.
Finley’s 48-yarder to Harmon early in the second quarter gave the Pack the lead, but Jackson quickly responded by leading a 75-yard drive for the tying score, a 23-yard throw to Dawkins.
The Pack had some injuries to absorb in the first half – first to guard Terronne Prescod, then center Garrett Bradbury. Both returned to the game, Bradbury after being taken off for chest X-rays.
“Our guys just wanted it,” Doeren said. “It’s a testament to the toughness of our guys.”
Had the Pack been more efficient in the red zone, it would have had a bigger lead heading into the fourth quarter. Finley fumbled on the Pack’s first possession of the game, and Carson Wise later missed a 35-yard field-goal try on N.C. State’s first possession of the second half.
But this was the Pack’s night, a time to shine under the lights.