Knight runs

Sophomore running back Zonovan Knight runs the ball during NC State's game against Syracuse at Carter-Finley Stadium on Nov. 20, 2021. NC State won 41-17.

The No. 20 NC State football team stomped the Syracuse Orange 41-17, keeping its ACC title game hopes alive, at the Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 20.

It took a while for the Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2 ACC) to rip the Band-Aid off, but once it got going in the second quarter, there was no looking back. NC State scored 28 of its 41 points in a seven-minute span at the end of the second quarter, scoring on offense, defense and special teams in the period, keeping the Orange (5-6, 2-5 ACC) at bay for the rest of the contest.

“It's pretty cool to be in a game where you score [in] all three phases of the game,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “To have an offense, obviously, we're going to score but [a] defensive touchdown with [sophomore linebacker] Drake [Thomas], a special teams touchdown [in] back to back games now for [sophomore running back Zonovan Knight].”

After dominating then-No. 12 Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman last week, the NC State defense kept the good times rolling against Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader. Shrader ended the lopsided game with a mere 40% completion percentage, 63 passing yards, zero passing touchdowns and one interception. Shrader finished with 70 yards on the ground and a score, though that touchdown came on a 48-yard gain midway through the fourth, bolstering his numbers a bit.

The defense’s good day didn’t stop there, with the unit registering five sacks and a whopping 14 tackles for loss. In addition to a big interception, a pick-six, Drake Thomas recorded two sacks. Linebackers redshirt junior Vi Jones and freshman Devon Betty, along with graduate end Daniel Joseph each came up with a sack of their own. Joseph, who went down three separate occasions last week with an injury, also had two and a half tackles for loss. The defense also held Syracuse running back Sean Tucker to his fourth-lowest rushing mark this season.

On the other side of the ball, redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary continued his strong season, going 17 of 24 for 303 passing yards and two touchdown passes.

The first quarter was characterized by several Pack penalties, looking reminiscent of last week’s disappointment against Wake Forest in which NC State committed 14 penalties. In the first, the Wolfpack accrued five penalties for 47 yards and failed to get anything going offensively. However, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and the Pack defense were able to stifle a potent ‘Cuse rushing offense led by Tucker and Shrader, holding the Orange to -1 rushing yards in the first quarter.

“A lot of really good stuff,” Doeren said. “I think defending them is a challenge with all the different run things they do. My hat's off to Sean Tucker and Garrett Schrader, I think they're both good runners, tough kids.”

After a sluggish, penalty-ridden first quarter and slow start to the second, the Wolfpack and Orange scored a combined 28 points in a period of three minutes, 13 seconds. The Pack’s first score came following a deep ball, good for 49 yards, to redshirt junior receiver Thayer Thomas, which led to a 15-yard scoring rush from junior back Ricky Person Jr.

Syracuse managed to get the ball back but Shrader quickly threw a pick to the hands of Drake Thomas, who took it all the way to the house, giving the Pack a 14-0 lead. Just moments later, ‘Cuse back Tucker took off for a 55-yard scoring rush, breaking a tackle in the process and cutting into the Wolfpack’s lead.

For the second straight week, Knight returned a kick for a touchdown, this time for 97 yards, putting the Pack up front 21-7. The score gave the Wolfpack its third score in just over three minutes after not scoring for nearly 24 minutes of game time before that. Knight’s touchdown also gave NC State two straight touchdowns without its offense even having to touch the field.

“To be honest, I was kind of surprised,” Knight said of Syracuse kicking to him after his big week against Wake. “We put in a whole game plan in case they cross-kicked to the off returner in Jordan. I was surprised they kept kicking it to me over and over again.”

It seemed as though the Pack scoring onslaught might stop for a moment, but NC State squeezed another score in before the half, slowly draining the soul of anyone who took the under. The Pack’s fourth straight score came after an impressive, contested 58-yard grab from redshirt sophomore receiver Devin Carter, with Leary finding redshirt freshman tight end Christopher Toudle in the end zone shortly thereafter.

NC State kept its foot on the gas in the third quarter, getting good field position on its first drive of the period, allowing it to easily get a field goal and extend its lead. Later in the quarter, Thayer Thomas joined his brother in the scoring fun, giving the Wolfpack a 38-10 lead after an 8-yard touchdown. With the touchdown, the Thomas brothers became the first pair of NC State brothers to record a touchdown in the same season since 1975, when Dave and Don Buckey did so.

Syracuse scored one more touchdown on a rush by Shrader but the Pack got another field goal and held on for the 41-17 dub.

Everything went the Pack’s way this week, with a resounding ACC win and No. 10 Wake Forest losing to Clemson in a blowout loss. In order for NC State to make the ACC title game, Wake will need to drop its last game of the season, an away matchup with Boston College. NC State holds the tiebreaker over Clemson.

“I'm thankful that we still have a chance to play for an ACC championship,” Thayer Thomas said. “Also thankful for the brotherhood that we all have. … But being an older guy now and being a leader in the room and on the team, and sort of leading the offense while my brother's sort of a leader on the defense. [I’m] thankful for that. I'm thankful that I get to play in my hometown. This has been a special season, and it's not anywhere from being close to over. We have a lot left in the tank. Wolfpack nation, get ready, we're gonna have a good run at the end of this thing.”

Of course, the Wolfpack will need to handle its own business next week if it wants any shot at the ACC Championship Game. The Pack will stay at home to take on rival UNC-Chapel Hill in an effort to avoid being spoiled in Carter-Finley in its regular-season finale on Friday, Nov. 26, with the opening kick set for 7 p.m.

“A lot of things we wanted to do tonight, we were able to do,” Doeren said. “A lot of guys playing now with some pain out there and playing a physical game. So proud of our guys for that. Now a chance to move forward and have a championship week, senior day, play our rival, all those things. And we don't control what happens with Wake Forest, but on our end, we have a chance to put ourselves in a position where if they lose, and we win we're in. So a lot to play for coming up and looking forward to that opportunity.”

Managing Editor

I'm Tristan Tucker, managing editor in the class of 2022 studying Communication Media and Statistics. I joined Technician in Fall 2018 and am a credentialed NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and SB Nation.