A little sluggish, a little sloppy, N.C. State got a pick-me-up from running back Nyheim Hines in the first half and then rode its defense in the second half to a fourth straight ACC win.
Hines ran for 135 yards and a touchdown and had a long punt return for a touchdown, to lead the 20th-ranked Wolfpack to a 35-17 win at Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.
N.C. State (6-1, 4-0 ACC) has won six straight to continue its best start in 15 years and to take sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Division after Clemson’s loss at Syracuse on Friday.
But this win didn’t look like the last one – an emotionally charged home win over Louisville – or its last road game (at Florida State), coach Dave Doeren’s first win over a top-25 team.
The Wolfpack didn’t have the same juice, with a sparse crowd for the struggling Panthers (2-5, 0-3), and made more mistakes than it has at any point during this winning streak.
There were dropped passes, a dropped interception and a short missed field goal. The offense, in general, was slow out of the gates, but Hines provided a spark. Hines popped an 83-yard touchdown run at 4:37 in the first quarter to tie the score at 7.
N.C. State’s defense forced a punt on Pitt’s next series, and Hines returned it 92 yards for a score. It was the longest punt return by a Wolfpack player since Jack McDowall took one 95 yards to the house against Duke in 1926.
Pitt tied the score at 14 at the half, but N.C. State scored the next two touchdowns. Ryan Finley, who struggled, hit Jakobi Meyers with a 3-yard touchdown pass at 2:32 in the third quarter.
A 1-yard rushing touchdown by Jaylen Samuels, at 11:55 in the fourth quarter, put the Wolfpack up 28-14. Samuels added a 40-yard TD run at 2:01 to put the game away.
The unbeaten ACC start matches the 4-0 mark by the 2002 N.C. State team.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio