RALEIGH – With his left arm swaying almost dead at his side, N.C. State quarterback Pete Thomas walked to the locker room, still with minutes to play Saturday afternoon.
Even with a healthy arm, Thomas could not do much for the Wolfpack’s cause.
N.C. State’s offense, which was spotty at best, never found a rhythm, and its defense finally cracked under a relenting rushing attack as Syracuse won its first game in the Atlantic Coast Conference, 24-10, at Carter Finley Stadium.
“We just have to make more plays, and obviously, we have to finish the game better,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said.
After stopping Syracuse (3-3, 1-1 ACC) on the ground for the first three quarters, two plays broke N.C. State, which was ranked 17th nationally against the run after allowing 107.6 yards per game through the first five games.
N.C. State held Syracuse to 228 rushing yards through the first three quarters, but just before Thomas injured his left shoulder and again before her retreated to the locker room, Syracuse gashed the Wolfpack (3-3, 0-3).
Orange running back Jerome Smith broke a big run down the middle that led to a touchdown, and then minutes later, Prince-Tyson Gulley did the same. In fewer than five minutes, Syracuse went from being tied to ahead by 14.
“It was just two runs, but they were huge plays,” Doeren said. “They just cracked us down the middle of our defense.”
The Orange finished with 362 rushing yards. Smith ran for 140, Gulley had 132 and quarterback Terrel Hunt finished with 92.
“We knew that (was) what they were going to do,” defensive back Dontae Johnson said. “They were going to try and establish the run game. It happened in the fourth quarter, and it cost us the game. … They out-toughed us in the fourth quarter, and it sucks.”
With Thomas out and No. 1 quarterback Brandon Mitchell still on the sideline with a foot injury, Doeren turned to redshirt sophomore Garrett Leatham, who isn’t even listed on the roster.
Although Leatham was able to put together a few disorganized completions, including the two longest passes of the game for N.C. State, the Wolfpack’s offense was too far gone.
Everyone was to blame.
Thomas overthrew open receivers.
Wildcat quarterback Bryant Shirreffs missed an open touchdown.
Receivers dropped passes that could have gone for first downs.
“We made some plays, but we had guys open and overthrew it,” Doeren said. “We had a couple nice throws that were dropped.
“It just wasn’t good enough.”
Even back against the wall – with a wall of injuries mounting – N.C. State’s defense still left the Wolfpack in position to remain unbeaten against Syracuse. N.C. State had won all six previous meetings against the Orange.
Already missing its top two cornerbacks and starting defensive tackle Darryl Cato-Bishop, the Wolfpack lost defensive tackle T.Y. McGill and cornerback Jack Tocho, who had two interceptions in the first half.
“We can’t let that affect us,” middle linebacker Robert Caldwell said of the injuries. “We have to keep going, keep pushing.”
N.C. State enters its bye week with three conference losses and a trip to Tallahasee looming on the schedule in two weeks. The break couldn’t come at a better time for the Wolfpack to not only see some of its top players return from the injured list but also refocus on its postseason goals, still needing four wins to qualify for a bowl game.
“We need to find ourselves, and we need to get back to the practice field,” Caldwell said.
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org