Nobody thanked Louisville on Thursday.
No. 24 N.C. State probably should have after its 39-25 win over the 17th-ranked Cardinals at Carter-Finley Stadium.
Without the lesson Louisville taught N.C. State last year, the Wolfpack wouldn’t be where it is now.
And that’s ranked in the top 25 for the first time in seven years and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in 15 years. After its first conference win over the Cardinals (4-2, 1-2 ACC), the Wolfpack (5-1) also enters the weekend tied with Clemson for first place in the Atlantic Division.
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“We’ve been through a lot,” said quarterback Ryan Finley, who threw for 367 yards and a touchdown. “Last year was a tough year for us. When you go through the fire like that, you come out burned and you get back to work.”
N.C. State’s loss to Louisville last season, 53-13 on the road, wasn’t just a loss, it was a lesson.
N.C. State lost at Clemson last Oct. 15 in overtime, after it missed a 33-yard field goal which would have won the game on the last play of regulation.
The next week, N.C. State was still wallowing in that Clemson loss and got blasted by quarterback Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals.
Jackson was good again on Thursday, he accounted for 427 yards and three touchdowns, but it wasn’t the same for him or his team. And N.C. State wasn’t about to let its chance for revenge slip away.
“It’s something that you don’t forget,” said running back Nyheim Hines, who ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns.
That’s both the embarrassment of the listless performance at Louisville and the lesson: You can’t let one loss turn into two.
N.C. State could have done that this year after a difficult loss to another team from the state of South Carolina.
Instead of moping after a 35-28 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 2, N.C. State made a decision.
“We went back to work,” Finley said. “That’s all you can do after a loss like that.”
The Wolfpack started with a win over Marshall, then one over Furman, then one at Florida State, then at home vs. Syracuse and finally Thursday’s over Louisville, which had won the first three ACC games between the two teams.
The South Carolina loss hurt, but N.C. State didn’t handle it like it did the loss to Clemson last October.
“We learned from our mistakes,” said receiver/running back Jaylen Samuels, who caught seven passes for 104 yards against the Cardinals.
N.C. State never trailed on Thursday, just as it didn’t against FSU. The Wolfpack’s confidence right now is palpable. There is a sense of both satisfaction, for clearing two of the major Atlantic Division hurdles, but also a sense of hunger. There’s still more out there for the Pack.
“You can just feel it right now in our locker room,” coach Dave Doeren said. “They believe they’re the best team. And they’re playing hard and they’re playing together and they’re tough and it’s fun … a lot of fun.”
Fun and rewarding for a veteran group, that included 11 senior starters on Thursday, and who had lived through the pain of not only all of the close calls from last season but the collapse after a 4-0 start in 2015.
“We’ve been through so many heartbreaks in the past,” senior defensive end Bradley Chubb said.
And they’re all paying off now, one by one. The last N.C. State team to win five straight, and start 3-0 in ACC play, was led by legendary quarterback Philip Rivers in 2002. That’s the only team in school history to win at least 10 games. Behind Rivers’ brilliant passing, the Pack started 9-0 and finished 11-3.
With Finley clicking, his receivers helping – notably Kelvin Harmon (6 catches, 133 yards) and Stephen Louis (3 catches, 99 yards) on Thursday – Hines running hard and the defense making key plays, the Wolfpack is halfway to 10 wins. When N.C. State left Charlotte after the South Carolina loss, that didn’t seem like real possibility.
“I told our team it was coming,” Doeren said. “I told y’all it was coming. Some of you believed me, some of you didn’t.”
With each win, N.C. State picks up more believers.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio