Syracuse opened the door for N.C. State to take over first place in the Atlantic Division.
It took the Wolfpack a minute to walk through, but with the help of running back Nyheim Hines and a strong defensive effort in the second half, it finally did.
Hines ran for 135 yards and scored two touchdowns, including one on a long punt return, to lead the No. 20 Wolfpack to a 35-17 win at Pittsburgh on Saturday afternoon.
With Clemson’s shocking loss at Syracuse on Friday night, N.C. State (6-1, 4-0 ACC) is alone atop the division. This is the latest point in the season N.C. State has held the division lead alone since the ACC adopted the format in 2005.
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“We’re in the driver’s seat,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “The goal is to stay there. The only way to do that is to keep doing what we’re doing.”
What Doeren’s team is doing right now is winning. Six in a row overall and a perfect 4-0 mark in conference play. It’s N.C. State’s best league start, and longest overall winning streak, since the 2002 season.
This win didn’t look like the last one – an emotionally-charged home win over Louisville – or its last road game (at Florida State), Doeren’s first win over a top-25 team. The Wolfpack was a little sluggish and a little sloppy.
But with other division contenders falling at Syracuse or losing at home to Boston College (as Louisville did on Saturday), style points don’t matter.
“It wasn’t a pretty win, but a win’s a win,” said receiver Kelvin Harmon, who had 113 receiving yards.
The Wolfpack didn’t have quite the same juice, with a sparse crowd at Heinz Field for the struggling Panthers (2-5, 0-3).
This is an unintended consequence of the new ACC. There’s little familiarity between N.C. State and Pitt and no history as conference opponents. The Panthers joined the league in 2013 but this was the first ACC game between the two and they won’t play again until 2024.
But it was more than a case of “Who are these guys?” that was plaguing N.C. State in the first half.
There were dropped passes, a dropped interception and a short missed field goal. The offense, in general, was slow out of the gate.
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 touchdown.
“Without a doubt he showed up at Heinz Field, a different spelling, and played his butt off,” Doeren said.
Hines has scored five touchdowns and run for at least 100 yards in the past three games.
Given N.C. State’s problems catching the ball, and quarterback Ryan Finley’s slow start – he was 6-of-14 for 69 yards in the first half – a tie at the half wasn’t so bad.
“We didn’t make a lot of plays,” Hines said. “We weren’t finishing blocks, finishing catches or finishing tackles. So we were really fortunate to be tied at halftime the way we played in the first half.”
The Wolfpack defense got cranked up in the second half. The Panthers went interception, punt, punt, punt on their first four possessions of the second half.
They had dug deep into the playbook with a backward pass to offensive tackle Brian O’Neill in the first half, which set up a 1-yard touchdown by Darrin Hall, but ran out of tricks in the second half.
Senior cornerback Michael Stevens had his first interception of the season in the third quarter for N.C. State’s defense. Defensive end Darian Roseboro had a sack and forced fumble in the fourth quarter.
While Pitt managed only a meaningless field goal in the second half, Harmon helped set up two touchdowns with long catches, and Jaylen Samuels scored twice.
Samuels’ 40-yard touchdown run, with 2:01 left, sent the Wolfpack into its bye week off, alone in first place, and with a running head start.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio