RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State needs marquee victories to validate its improvement and there’s another chance for that Thursday night at home against No. 17 Louisville and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
The No. 24 Wolfpack is a newcomer to the national rankings after winning four games in a row.
“I just think it’s a different team,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said of his club’s ability to rise to the occasion. “It’s an experienced football team.”
N.C. State (4-1, 2-0 ACC) already has pulled off an upset of Florida State. Even in the first week of October, the Wolfpack and Clemson are the lone teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division without a loss.
So this makes it perhaps even more crucial for Louisville (4-1, 1-1) to leave with a victory.
“It’s competitive,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said of the Atlantic Division. “It doesn’t really surprise me because N.C. State is really good.”
This marks the first time two ranked teams will meet at Carter-Finley Stadium since 2000. The Wolfpack lost to Florida State in that one.
But the big-time matchup is something Doeren, in his fifth season, knows N.C. State fans covet. He said he expected an energized crowd to be on hand as the team holds a national ranking for the first time since the end of the 2010 season.
If the Wolfpack needs any more motivation, there’s the memory of last year’s 54-13 loss at Louisville. That came just a week after an overtime setback to eventual national champion Clemson.
“It was a tough one last year,” Wolfpack defensive tackle B.J. Hill said. “I feel we’re a better team this year.”
Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson produced a huge game against the Wolfpack last year — with four touchdowns in the first half — and it certainly helped fuel his Heisman Trophy candidacy.
“This will be a tremendous opportunity and challenge for our guys,” Doeren said of dealing with Jackson. “We have to do a good job of containing him. He runs through contact. … He has great weapons around him.”
N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley hasn’t thrown an interception in 192 attempts this year. He’s part of the reason why the Wolfpack’s 72.1 percent completion rate ranks seventh nationally.
“He’s playing smart,” Doeren said. “He has got lucky, too. He has had a couple (potential interceptions) dropped.”
N.C. State has put together one of the most respected defenses in the ACC. Defensive end Bradley Chubb leads the conference with 12 tackles for loss.
This group looks familiar to Petrino.
“It’s all the same guys we’ve been playing,” he said. “All the same defensive line, the same linebackers. So they’re a very good football team.”
The Cardinals are coming off a 55-10 rout of Football Championship Subdivision member Murray State, racking up 676 yards of total offense.
Jackson has accounted for a school-record 92 career touchdowns, including four in the Murray State game when he played barely more than a half.
The victory against Florida State could be a good omen for the Wolfpack because of the ability to hold on during some fourth-quarter adversity.
In recent seasons, there have been too many times when the Wolfpack couldn’t close the deal.
“We just didn’t finish,” Doeren said. “(Now we’re) playing against a team that has got the best of us the last three times we played them. We didn’t play well at all in that (2016) game.”
Louisville has won six of seven meetings with N.C. State, including all three since joining the ACC. The Wolfpack’s lone victory came in the 2011 Belk Bowl.
“We’ve had some great battles with them,” Petrino said. “Last year we got ahead of them early and that helped us.”
Petrino is 14-0 against North Carolina-based schools, already defeating North Carolina this season. The Cardinals will return later in the month to face Wake Forest.
Seven of the Wolfpack’s Thursday night games on ESPN have come against ranked opponents, with N.C. State 4-3 in those games.
But the last time N.C. State won a game between two ranked teams in Raleigh came in 1992 against Wake Forest.
Wolfpack safety Dexter Wright, who has been out since the opener with a groin injury, is expected to be ready. Doeren also said receiver Kelvin Harmon, who started the season on a tear, should be fine despite a bruised shoulder suffered last week against Syracuse.
Louisville All-American cornerback Jaire Alexander has missed four games because of a knee injury, but he did practice last week and could be in line to return Thursday.