RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina State just needed to make sure it took care of business to give itself a chance to be in the mix for a conference championship.
The No. 25 Wolfpack found several ways to do that as Devin Leary threw for two touchdowns, Zonovan Knight returned a kickoff for a touchdown and N.C. State beat Syracuse 41-17 on Saturday to keep its hopes alive for an Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
After neither team scored in the first 22 minutes, the Wolfpack scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams in a matter of less than 3 1/2 minutes. It was all part of N.C. State’s 28-point burst in the last 6:14 of the first half.
“It was great to see our defense score,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “It was great to see our special teams score. There was a lot of complementary football there. It’s pretty cool to be in a game where you score in all three phases of the game.”
By the time the game began, N.C. State (8-3, 5-2, No. 20 CFP) had retained a shot at reaching the ACC championship game because Atlantic Division-leading Wake Forest lost at Clemson. In order to go to Charlotte for the league title game Dec. 4, the Wolfpack must defeat North Carolina on Friday followed by a Wake Forest loss the next day at Boston College.
The Wolfpack couldn’t be consumed with a loss a week earlier at Wake Forest.
“The motivation to bounce back is always the priority,” Leary said.
Syracuse (5-6, 2-5), which was blown out a week earlier at Louisville, needs to beat Coastal Division champion Pittsburgh next week at home to secure bowl eligibility.
Freshman running back Sean Tucker became Syracuse’s single-season rushing leader, passing Joe Morris with a second-quarter carry. Morris set the mark with 1,372 yards in 1979.
Tucker, who entered the week second nationally in rushing, has 1,467 yards this year after posting 105 yards on 13 carries Saturday.
Leary threw for 303 yards by completing 17 of 24 passes.
Neither team showed much offense until a two-play sequence for N.C. State midway through the second quarter. Leary threw 49 yards to Thayer Thomas before Ricky Person Jr. scored on a 15-yard run.
Two snaps later, N.C. State linebacker Drake Thomas — the receiver’s younger brother —- returned Garrett Shrader’s interception 38 yards for a touchdown.
Syracuse countered on Tucker’s 55-yard run with 3:16 left in the first half.
Knight returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. After a Syracuse punt, N.C. State went 80 yards in five plays with Leary’s scramble and 14-yard toss to Chris Toudle extending the lead with eight seconds left in the half.
“We gave one away on offense and gave one away on special teams,” Syracuse coach Dino Babers said of the game slipping away. “Instead of being 14-7 at halftime, it was 28-7. … When you give up 14 points when your defense isn’t on the field, that’s an emotional swing.”
Syracuse: Syracuse lost its first three ACC games by a total of nine points (including one game in overtime), but the last two results have been lopsided. A sputtering offense has been the biggest problem as until the fourth quarter, Syracuse had gone eight full quarters with just one touchdown. Syracuse was without a fourth-quarter point in its past two games, and finally broke that drought with Shrader’s 48-yard run with 8:45 left.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack have eclipsed the 40-point mark in four games this season, including the past two. N.C. State has followed each of its three losses by winning by at least 15-point margins in its next game.
When Leary threw a third-quarter touchdown pass of 8 yards to Thayer Thomas, it meant that the Thomas siblings had both scored.
That marked the first time since 1975 that brothers scored in the same season for N.C. State.
“To make plays like that on the big stage is a great feeling,” Drake Thomas said.
Thayer Thomas said, “He’s good with the ball in his hands, too.”
Knight became the first player in N.C. State history with three kickoff returns for touchdowns. He has returned kickoffs for touchdowns in back-to-back games after doing so from 100 yards away a week earlier in a loss at Wake Forest.
“I just happen to go in the right direction,” Knight said of his fortune on kickoffs.
The last time a Wolfpack player had two touchdowns on kickoff returns in a season came in 2012 from Tobias Palmer.
N.C. State could climb a few spots, though voters might be inclined to make room for Clemson, which lost to the Wolfpack in overtime in September, in the rankings.
Syracuse: Hosts Pittsburgh on Saturday
N.C. State: Hosts North Carolina on Friday night.