By Peter Koutroumpis
RALEIGH, N.C. – The 24th-ranked N.C. State Wolfpack topped the 17th-ranked Louisville Cardinals 39-25 in front of a crowd of 56,107 at Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday.
Coming into the matchup, N.C. State was ranked in the Associated Press (AP) top-25 for the first time since the final poll of the 2010 season, and hadn’t beaten a ranked opponent when it was also ranked since 2000.
“I’m really proud of our players and our coaching staff – what a win; great football game,” Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren said.
“Bunch of players on both teams playing hard. When you can play like that in that environment, it was electric. Our student section was the best I’ve ever seen it tonight, and we’d love for it to be like that every week. They make our team so much better when they do that for us. Thank you to our fans for that.”
Quarterback Ryan Finley went head-to-head with reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, and kept the Wolfpack on pace to beat the Cardinals as both offenses combined for 990 yards.
Finley came into the game as one of the nation’s most accurate passers, completing 72 percent of his throws, and hadn’t tossed an interception in 257 throws dating back to last season.
He maintained that consistency, not being sacked or intercepted, pacing himself to a 20-of-31 finish for 367 yards and one touchdown while rushing for another 19 yards.
“I thought Ryan Finley played a tremendous game, gave a lot of guys opportunities,” Doeren said.
“Ryan really has done what he’s done every game. He’s consistent and he knows where to go with the football. He makes plays, keeps up in drives. He’s a great game manager and distributor of the football. He’s got great touch, Coach Drink has done a heck of a job coaching him. He knows exactly what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and he’s never affected by anything. That’s exactly what we want at that position.”
Following a scoreless opening quarter, both teams’ offenses found spots to post points on the board.
A 48-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Harmon (6 catches, 133 yards) put the Wolfpack ahead early in the second.
Jackson and the Cardinals answered back quickly, connecting with Seth Dawkins (5 catches, 133 yards) to even the score with 7:27 to play in the half.
A Carson Wise field goal attempt from 21 yards soon pulled N.C. State back ahead 10-7.
With two minutes remaining, Finley connected with Stephen Louis on a 39-yard pass play that moved the Wolfpack to the Louisville 11-yard line.
From there, Nyheim Hines ran it in and extended the Wolfpack lead to 10 points.
While Lewis made key catches to set up scores throughout the game, three of them for 99 yards, Hines (16 rushes, 102 yards) and Reggie Gallaspy (8 rushes, 31 yards) racked up the points by scoring a combined three rushing touchdowns.
“We didn’t do a good job of defending the pass game,” Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino said.
“We didn’t get pressure on the quarterback. We panicked and didn’t play the ball in the much at times. That’s hard for me to see because that’s something we work extremely hard on every day. The quarterback had some good throws and their players went up and made good catches.”
Jackson pushed Louisville down the field with under a minute remaining, looking to cut its deficit.
Even while gaining two first downs, quarterback hurries from defensive end Bradley Chubb and linebacker Airius Moore (8 tackles) were enough to deny a touchdown score.
Chubb and the Wolfpack defense was dominating, sacking Jackson four times in the first half.
The senior finished with six tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two QB-hurries, and a sack.
“He’s electric,” Chubb said of Jackson.
“He’s fast. He can do a lot of things with his feet and his arms. We just had to try and contain him the best we could.”
Even when Jackson couldn’t score or set up a rush or throw to do so, the Cardinals continued to find a way.
Cardinals placekicker Blanton Creque managed to successfully convert a 28-yard field goal attempt with three seconds remaining in the opening half, and N.C. State carried a 17-10 lead into the break.
To start the third quarter, it looked as though Finley and the Wolfpack would reestablish a double-digit lead, but a 13-play, 55-yard drive ended at the Cardinals’ 20-yard line after Wise missed a 35-yard field goal attempt.
Louisville took advantage of its next possession and pulled within four, trailing 17-13, following Creque’s second field goal of the game from a career-long 48 yards out.
The Wolfpack answered back quickly as Hines ran the ball seven yards and completed a nine-play, 78-yard drive that extended the lead to 24-13 with 1:35 remaining in the third quarter.
With smartphone lights peppering the stands, and the Wolfpack faithful moving in unison while Journey’s ‘Don’t stop believin’” echoed throughout the stadium, Jackson tried set the stage for the Cardinals to make a comeback push during the final 15 minutes of play.
Just under four minutes later, the quarterback’s 10-yard pass to Charles Standberry pulled Louisville to within five, trailing 24-19.
The Wolfpack didn’t relent and managed to score again.
Following a spectacular aerial catch by Harmon at the Louisville three-yard line, Gallaspy ran the ball in, and followed by a successful two-point conversion, N.C. State led 32-19 with 10:07 remaining.
“It just comes from repetition,” Harmon said of making such snags.
“Just doing it all the time and just believing. Having great chemistry with (Ryan) Finley, he just puts the ball there.”
While Finley and his receivers were connecting, Jackson and the Cardinals weren’t done just yet.
An efficient and productive 80-yard Louisville drive six minutes later ended with Jackson breaking the plane on the rush to cut the Wolfpack lead down again.
But a block of Creque’s PAT by Chubb kept the difference at seven points.
Following a well-placed 50-yard A.J. Cole punt, Jackson and the Cardinals were hemmed in on their 11-yard line.
The N.C. State defense then made its most significant stand, rushing Jackson and eventually intercepting his pass attempt.
As he launched the ball into the air, it was tipped and plucked down by Germaine Pratt who ran it in for a touchdown.
The Wolfpack lead stood at 39-25 with 2:52 remaining.
Jackson and the Cardinals had nothing left as the N.C. State defense finalized the result, its first-ever regular-season win over Louisville in seven tries.
“The sky is the limit for this team,” Chubb concluded.
“I sincerely believe that. That’s the main reason I came back. I knew we weren’t done. It’s just good to see things come to fruition. We’re going to try and keep the momentum going to the next game.”
Peter Koutroumpis: 401-323-8960, @pksport