Buoyed by an unusually strong defense that intercepted Syracuse quarterback A.J. Long three times, N.C. State survived a few late scares and held off Syracuse, 24-17, at the Carrier Dome on Saturday. The win—the first ACC victory in 13 tries under head coach Dave Doeren—improved the Wolfpack to 5-4 overall and 1-4 in league play.
“It is a great win,” Doeren said after securing his first conference win with the Wolfpack. “I am happy for the players. I am really proud of them for fighting through a momentum-changing game. A lot of plays went back-and-forth."
The Pack pressured Long all day and were able to sack the freshman eight times while also forcing three second half turnovers. The pressure caused by the defensive line also stymied the Orange’s rushing game. Syracuse finished with 38 yards rushing on 37 attempts.
“It was huge,” Doeren said off the defense’s effort. “Our defensive carried us today. It was two good, hard-hitting defenses today. It was kind of an old-school football game.”
State drove initially on the opening drive but was held on Syracuse’s side of the field and was forced to settle for a field goal from Niklas Sade. The senior from Wake Forest, N.C. connected on three field goals in the first half which gave the Wolfpack a, 9-0, lead that appeared safe heading into halftime.
The Orange (3-6, 1-4 in the ACC) drove late in the first half—aided by a pass interference call—and scored with 15 seconds left in the second quarter on a pass completion in the end zone from Long to junior wide receiver Ben Lewis that replays appeared to show as being an incompletion.
Syracuse took its first lead of the game with 11:38 left in the third quarter when Long connected with fellow freshman Steve Ishmael from 25-yards. Later, the Orange were driving for a score that would have made it a two-possession game and N.C. State, which had only came within double-digits once in ACC play in Doeren’s tenure, seemed ready to falter.
The Wolfpack dramatically retook the lead however when freshman defensive end Pharoah McKever intercepted Long and made a dazzling 82-yard return to paydirt. It was the sixth longest interception return for a touchdown in N.C. State history and it also gave the Pack a lead it would ultimately not relinquish.
The former high school quarterback was born on Long Island and lived in Albany before moving to North Carolina at the age of 12. Having the interception come in his home state, along with helping State earn the victory, made it even more special.
“I played wide receiver last year (on scout team) and I haven’t really run that far in a long time,” McKever said. “When I got the ball, my intention was to just go and keep going. It is definitely my biggest moment [in football].”
The Pack appeared to close out the game when Jacoby Brissett (20-for-32, 186 yards) connected with Shadrach Thornton for a n 18-yard touchdown pass with 2:14 remaining to give State a 10-point lead. Syracuse would not quit. A 50-yard penalty by freshman Cole Murphy made the score 24-17 with 17 seconds left.
Then the Orange recovered an onside kick, although the return to the end zone was nullified. Long heaved a Hail Mary pass that was picked off by Josh Jones and N.C. State could finally celebrate.
“I don’t like to make excuses,” Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer said. “[N.C. State] did a nice job and we’re just a little thinner than we’d like to be. But no excuses, own it, move on and find a way.”
N.C. State will now look to find a way to earn a postseason appearance for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Pack has three chances to earn bowl eligibility with its sixth win of the season; beginning at Carter-Finley Stadium on November 8th against Georgia Tech. After the game with the Yellow Jackets, State finishes up with two matchups versus in-state foes.
A home tilt on November 15 with Wake Forest and the season finale in Chapel Hill against rival-North Carolina close out the campaign.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Brissett said. “We want to enjoy this one but get ready for the next one starting [Sunday].