RALEIGH -- There were no tired legs when N.C. State was on the field Thursday night.
And aside from Tuffy, the wolflike Tamaskan dog mascot, nobody on the Wolfpack sideline had a tongue hanging out of his mouth.
Russell Wilson passed for 333 yards and three touchdowns as N.C. State defeated Cincinnati 30-19 at Carter-Finley Stadium, putting to rest coach Tom O’Brien’s concerns about playing just five days after a grueling Saturday night game in the Central Florida heat and humidity.
The Wolfpack’s rejiggered, high-pressure defense continued to show improvement after giving up 31.2 points per game last season, keeping constant pressure in the backfield. Sophomore linebacker Terrell Manning recorded two of N.C. State’s five sacks of Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros.
In a season that opened with questions about the direction of the N.C. State program after three straight losing seasons under O’Brien, the Wolfpack improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.
Cincinnati (1-2), which was picked to finish in a second-place tie in the Big East in the conference’s preseason media poll, fell behind 14-0 as Wilson passed for 154 yards in the first quarter. The Bearcats’ fast-paced, no-huddle offense and mobile quarterback Collaros seemed destined to test N.C. State’s endurance after the Wolfpack suffered from what O’Brien called “tired legs” late in a 28-21 win at Central Florida.
But N.C. State’s defense played every bit as fast as Cincinnati’s offense. And on the Wolfpack’s second possession, Wilson and offensive coordinator Dana Bible pushed the pace with a no-huddle attack, going 93 yards in nine plays to score on a 16-yard catch by Jay Smith.
On the Wolfpack’s next drive, freshman running back Mustafa Greene cut quickly to the sideline and stretched the ball out toward the pylon as his foot went out of bounds at the end of a 31-yard run.
The officials ruled the play a touchdown, and a replay review didn’t reveal evidence to overturn the score. Meanwhile, the N.C. State defense, which was allowing the fewest yards per game in the ACC entering the game, continued to shine.
Running back Dean Haynes lost a fumble at the Wolfpack 32-yard line in the second quarter. Three downs later, the Bearcats had been pushed back to the 35, where they missed a 52-yard field goal attempt.
Later in the second quarter, Collaros crossed midfield but lost a fumble that was recovered by J.R. Sweezy. Cincinnati finally broke through for its first score when Collaros hit D.J. Woods down the middle of the field for a 68-yard scoring pass with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
That cut N.C. State’s lead to 14-7 with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the second quarter. Suddenly a game the Wolfpack had dominated from the start appeared in danger of slipping away.
The uncertainty didn’t last long. Wilson capped a 72-yard drive with a 12-yard scoring pass to running back Curtis Underwood. Josh Czajkowski missed the extra point, but the Wolfpack still led 20-7 at halftime.
A Czajkowski 19-yard field goal on N.C. State’s first possession of the second half stretched the lead to 23-7. And with the way the Wolfpack defense was playing, that was more than enough cushion as N.C. State won on a Thursday night for the first time in four tries under O’Brien.
In the fourth quarter, Colby Jackson blocked a punt that led to an 8-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Taylor Gentry for an insurmountable, 30-7 lead. There are other, bigger tests ahead of N.C. State as the Wolfpack prepares to begin ACC play on the road on Sept. 25 at Georgia Tech.
But the benefit of the short preparation time for the Cincinnati game is that N.C. State gets time to rest and heal over this weekend while the Yellow Jackets have to travel to North Carolina to meet the Tar Heels.
There shouldn’t be any tired legs for N.C. State in the future now in a season that has become more promising with each passing week.