St. Petersburg, Fla. — A turnaround season got a little sweeter for North Carolina State in the Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl.
The Wolfpack took another step forward under second-year coach Dave Doeren on Friday night with a 34-27 victory over Central Florida that wasn't as close as the final score.
NC State (8-5) dominated for three quarters before Justin Holman threw a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to help UCF pull within seven.
"This is just the beginning," Doeren told cheering Wolfpack fans listening to a postgame interview over the public address system at Tropicana Field. "Go Pack!"
Jacoby Brissett threw for 262 yards and one touchdown and Matt Dayes scored on runs of 24 and 15 yards for NC State, which won just three games in its first season under Doeren.
"I can't wait for next season, there's no telling how far this team can go," Brissett said. "I'm excited in the direction we're going. This is a great program to be at. Everything is set up for us to have success."
Brissett tossed a 37-yard TD pass to Johnathan Alston to put the Wolfpack ahead for good in the second quarter. Running back Shadrach Thornton got NC State going early with an 18-yard scoring pass to Jaylen Samuels.
UCF (9-4) began the night ranked in the top 10 in fewest yards allowed per game, as well as pass efficiency, rushing and scoring defense. But American Athletic Conference co-champions had no answers for Brissett and a supporting cast that amassed 488 yards of total offense — over 200 more than opponents averaged against the Knights during the regular season.
Brissett was 15 of 26 with no interceptions, completing passes to eight receivers. Thornton rushed for 96 yards on 17 carries and Dayes finished with 78 yards on 13 attempts to key a ground attack that produced 188 yards.
Doeren thanked his players and coaching staff and talked about Brissett's growth in his first season at NC State after transferring from Florida.
"He takes things so personal. He is such a competitor," Doeren said. "He gives all the credit to his teammates. He learned a lot throughout the season, and we love him."
Holman completed 23 of 53 passes for 291 yards for UCF, including TD passes of 6, 14 and 2 yards to Josh Reese, who had six receptions for 75 yards. Reese's second touchdown cut it to 34-20 with 11 minutes remaining.
The Knights got the ball back three more times, but couldn't get any closer until Holman threw his 2-yarder to Reese with 1:44 left. NC State's Tyler Purvis recovered the ensuing onside kick, and the Wolfpack ran out the clock.
"We just let the game get out of a whack a little bit," UCF coach George O'Leary said. "You can't do that."
UCF is a year removed from arguably the biggest victory in school history, an upset of Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl that capped the Knights' first 12-win season.
Going from appearing in a BCS game for the first time to ending the year in St. Petersburg for the second time in three seasons might have been perceived as a letdown except the Knights have continued to prosper after losing star quarterback Blake Bortles to the NFL draft, where he was the third overall selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Holman's Hail Mary pass to Breshad Perriman as time expired gave UCF a 32-30 victory over East Carolina and a share of its second straight AAC championship.
NC State is in its second season of rebuilding under Doeren, who took over after a highly successful stint at Northern Illinois. The Wolfpack went 0-8 in the ACC and 3-9 overall in 2013, and the four-game improvement in their regular-season record this year matched Mississippi State for the second-biggest in the five power conferences.
The Bitcoin Bowl was a homecoming of sorts for Brissett, who is from West Palm Beach and transferred to NC State from Florida. The 6-foot-4, 231-pound redshirt junior completed 10 of his first 12 passes for 197 yards, including his TD pass to Alston that put the Wolfpack up 14-10 early in the second quarter.
NC State won a postseason game for the first time since winning the Belk Bowl in 2011, ending UCF's three-game winning streak in bowl appearances.
"This is a good springboard to next season because the year before we lost our bowl game and last year we didn't get to one," Brissett said. "But this shows you the level that we can play at, and UCF is a very good team that won the Fiesta Bowl last year. This is a great victory. It's no telling how far this team can go."
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