It's fitting that on a night honoring those who defend our country, it was NC State's defense that rose to the occasion to key the Wolfpack's first ACC win of the season.
Recording eight sacks for the second straight game and carrying the load for an offense that's still having trouble scoring touchdowns despite a quarterback change, State's defenders were dominant in a pivotal 16-10 win at Carter-Finley Stadium on Thursday.
It was a performance that couldn't have come at a better time for the Wolfpack, which reaches the midway point in its 2019 season with a 4-2 overall record (1-1 in the ACC).
"When it's a close game like that, as a defense, we all just got tighter," said sophomore linebacker Isaiah Moore, who contributed 10 tackles and a half sack to the effort. "That's the bond we have on the defense. If it's on us, it's on us. That's how we want it. We feel like we can shoulder it"
It became evident early on that those shoulders would have to be strong.
Despite moving the ball well and finally introducting a vertical passing game into State's offensive arsenal, first-time starting quarterback Bailey Hockman had just as much trouble getting his team's offense into the end zone as former starter Matthew McKay.
The Wolfpack outgained the Orange by more than 100 yards through the first 29 minutes , but all it had to show for that disparity was a pair of short Christopher Dunn field goals.
It finally scored a touchdown late in the half on a 32-yard pass from wide receiver Thayer Thomas to running back Trent Pennix. But even then, its lead was an anything but comfortable 13-0.
The margin increased to 16 points midway through the third period on yet another chip shot by Dunn.
At that point, it was up to the defense to hold on for dear life.
"We cheer on our offense," said defensive tackle Larrell Murchison. "So whatever they do, we're just behind them and we're going to do our jobs."
That job got a little bit tougher when starting cornerback Chris Ingram, the team's second-leading tackler, went down with a leg injury on the final drive of the first half. Combined with an injury that has sidelined the other starting corner, Nick McCloud, since the season opener against East Carolina, Ingram's absence left State's secondary dangerously thin.
Orange quarterback Tommy DeVito took advantage by throwing for 178 of his 300 yards in the second half.
Even so, it took until the final three minutes of the third quarter for him to finally get his team on the board. Syracuse (3-3, 0-2) had to settle for a field goal when linebacker Louis Acceus recorded his third sack of the night on a third-and-four play from the Wolfpack 12.
The Orange's next possession ended when safety Tanner Ingle broke up a pass to Cameron Jordan in the end zone.
Syracuse finally scored a touchdown with exactly three minutes remaining on a 2-yard pass from DeVito to Trishon Jackson. But even then it took two pass interference calls on safety Kishawn Miller -- one on a play in which an offensive lineman got away with a blatant hold in the backfield -- to drive down the field.
The defense then sealed the deal when Murchison got his second sack -- and fifth in the last two games -- as the clock ran out.
"We know when it's time to eat," Murchison said. "When we see it on their faces, their body language, we know when it's time to eat."
Murchison and teammate limited Syracuse to 41 rushing yards and feasted on DeVito, who was limited in his mobility by a rib injury that forced him to wear a bulky flak jacket. Even at full strength he might have had difficulty against a 3-3-5 defensive alignment coach Dave Doeren said was designed specifically to slow uptemp offenses such as the one the Orange employs.
"The discussion we had when we hired the safeties coach (co-DC Tony Gibson was that) we need to be able to slow people down that we can’t stop in our other defense, that’s Clemson and Syracuse." Doeren said. "hose passing attacks with their receivers and quarterbacks.
"We’ve been able to stop the run against anybody, but those offensive systems make it hard in a four-down unless you just have two NFL corners who can lock up. That’s why we did that, to be able to handle the tempo of four-wide, spread offenses and be able to roll coverages and blitz more."
Those blitzes were especially effective Thursday. Of the Wolfpack's eight sacks, 4 1/2 were recorded by linebackers (three by Acceus, one by Brock Miller and a half by Moore).
"It's just the game plan. believing in the game plan, having a good week in practice, making sure we’re flying around, having full confidence in each other that we’re all going to do our job, and just having fun with each other out there," Acceus said. "It’s all (co-defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable) and his crazy scheming.
"With these blitzes he’s drawing up, everybody’s crossing here, crossing there, crossing there. Somebody’s going to end up open, so that’s how that happens."