The Pack entered the contest as underdogs and faced the task of battling the Knights in front of a highly partisan crowd in St. Petersburg. NC State, which won four of its last five games after a four-game losing streak left the team 4-4 entering the final third of the regular season, has now won three of its last four bowl games. The team finished 4-2 away from Carter-Finley Stadium in 2014.
Only two coaches, Lou Holtz in 1973 and Mike O’Cain in 1994 with nine wins each, have posted more victories in their second season as head coach at NC State than the eight Dave Doeren’s squad won this year.
“I am just proud of these players and proud to be their coach,” Doeren said. “It was a great season with a really, really strong finish. The guys bought all the way in last offseason. A lot of people were a part of it.”
Trailing by a field goal after UCF’s opening possession, Bowl MVP Jacoby Brissett, who finished 15-for-26 with 262 yards and one touchdown pass, along with 53 yards rushing on 14 carries, summarily marched the Pack downfield to take the lead. However, the final play of the scoring drive came from the arm of Shadrach Thornton, who connected with Jaylen Samuels for an 18-yard scoring play.
“I used to do sweep passes a lot in high school,” Thornton said. “I used to always get hit so that was not a problem. J-Sam made an incredible play.”
Thornton finished with 96 yards on 17 carries to go with his touchdown pass. Matt Dayes scored two touchdowns, finishing with 13 rushes for 78 yards.
With a majority of the announced crowd of 26,675 cheering them on, the Knights regained the lead when Justin Holman connected with Josh Reese for the first of their three touchdowns to give UCF, 14-10, advantage.
Brissett then connected with Johnathan Alston for a 37-yard touchdown pass with 9:05 remaining in the second quarter to give NC State the lead again. The Pack outscored Central Florida, 27-3, over the next two quarters to hold what seemed to be a commanding, 34-13, lead with less than 13 minutes remaining.
The Knights, who won its final regular season game on a Hail Mary play against East Carolina, rallied to score two touchdowns over a 10-minute stretch to narrow the gap to one touchdown with less than two minutes to play. Tyler Purvis recovered the ensuing onsides kick and UCF out of time outs, the Wolfpack was able to go into the victory formation.
“There wasn’t any mood,” Doeren said to describe his team’s approach as the Knights rallied. “It was just ‘make another play.’ We had our ‘hand’ team in and they kicked it to [Purvis], who has great hands. They showed in their last game that they would not give up.”
NC State also showed fortitude during the 2104 campaign according to Doeren and his team. The Wolfpack have only had 10 teams in its history, with the football program beginning in 1892, win more than eight games in a season. Dayes, among many others in red, feels the bowl win is just a start of great things.
“The sky is the limit for this program,” Dayes said. “We [one day] possibly could win the national championship, the ACC championship, so the sky is the limit.”