PITTSBURGH (AP) — On the road with a chance to take control of the ACC’s Atlantic Division, No. 20 North Carolina State spent a half nearly squandering the opportunity, familiar territory for a program that has spent more than a decade fighting a losing battle with sustained success.
Then the third quarter started, the Wolfpack dominated and a promising season took another impressive step forward.
Nyheim Hines ran for an 83-yard touchdown and returned a punt 92 yards for another score on his way to 249 total yards and Jaylen Samuels added a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs as the Wolfpack pulled away from Pittsburgh for a 35-17 win on Saturday.
N.C. State (6-1, 4-0) finds itself in control of its own destiny in the hyper-competitive Atlantic after defending national champion Clemson lost at Syracuse on Friday.
“I told the guys in there, ’We’re in the driver’s seat,’” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “The goal is to stay there and the way to do it is to keep doing what we’ve been doing, not listening to anybody, focusing on us and improving internally. That’s what we’ll do.”
Ryan Finley completed 14 of 25 passes for 198 yards and a 3-yard touchdown to Jakobi Meyers late in the third quarter to put N.C. State ahead to stay. Finley extended his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 313, the second-longest in ACC history.
The Wolfpack outgained Pitt by nearly 100 yards in the second half and forced a pair of turnovers to turn a tie game into their sixth straight victory, matching their longest winning streak since 2002 when Phillip Rivers was flinging passes to Jerricho Cotchery.
“That’s crazy,” Hines said. “It’s good to hear, but we’re just going to focus on NC State.”
The Wolfpack were trailing for the first time in a month when Hines stepped through a tackle at the line of scrimmage and raced to the end zone to tie it at 7. Following a three-and-out by Pitt, Hines fielded Ryan Winslow’s punt and raced untouched to the end zone, the longest punt return for a score by an N.C. State player since 1926.
“The guys that blocked for him on that punt return deserve gold stars because I’ve never seen a punt returner have zero people touch him on a vertical punt return like that,” Doeren said.
Samuels broke it open in the fourth with touchdown runs of 1 and 40 yards. Now it’s a week off before a visit to Notre Dame.
“It wasn’t a pretty win, but a win’s a win,” wide receiver Kelvin Harmon said. “We have the bye week. We have a lot to fix. We’ll get back to work.”
TWO HEADED MESS
Seven games in and Pitt (2-5, 0-3) is still searching for a quarterback. Ben DiNucci played during the first half and tossed a 33-yard touchdown pass to Jester Weah, but was removed in the third quarter as part of a pre-planned strategy to give true freshman Kenny Pickett a shot even though the Panthers trailed by just a touchdown at the time.
Pickett completed 5 of 13 passes for 61 yards and ran for another 18 yards in the first extended action of his career, leading Pitt to a fourth-quarter field goal before DiNucci finished up.
Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi allowed the current system “doesn’t make anybody happy,” but said the team still has belief in both players. The Panthers have played two quarterbacks in each of their seven games.
“I’ve never necessarily been in a situation like this,” said DiNucci, who threw for 170 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb left briefly in the third quarter after dislocating his pinkie. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound senior writhed in agony for several minutes but missed just a few plays before returning.
“I’ve never seen that before, that’s why I acted like that,” Chubb said. “It hurt bad, but looking it was pretty bad.”
Wolfpack defensive end Darian Roseboro collected a sack in the fourth quarter and pointed to the sky, a tribute to his father Johnny, who passed away earlier this month.
TAKE A KNEE
Pitt third-string placekicker Ian Troost took a knee during the national anthem, a decision that was fine with Narduzzi and the rest of the Panthers.
“We know as players on this team, with this coach and this AD, we have the freedom to express ourselves,” offensive tackle Brian O’Neill said.
N.C. State: The future looks bright. The kicking game needs to be better. Carson Wise missed a 37-yard field goal in the second quarter and is just 3 of 7 beyond 30 yards this season.
Pitt: The Panthers don’t have a running game regardless of who is under center. Pitt’s leading rushers on Saturday were Pickett and safety Jordan Whitehead.
N.C. State: Will try to improve to 3-0 all-time vs. Notre Dame on Oct. 28.
Pitt: Visits Duke next Saturday.