TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — North Carolina State has had good results in September under Dave Doeren but has stumbled once it started Atlantic Coast Conference play.
After beating No. 12 Florida State, the Wolfpack are showing signs of being the dark horse contender that some thought they would be before the season started.
Saturday's 27-21 win over the Seminoles generated plenty of national attention as the Wolfpack (3-1, 1-0 ACC) fell six votes short of making their first appearance in The Associated Press poll since 2010. The loss dropped Florida State out of the rankings for the first time since 2011.
It is only the third time since 2006 that N.C. State has won its conference opener. The Wolfpack also snapped a 10-game losing streak to ranked teams.
Doeren was the first to acknowledge how important the win was for his program.
"We beat a lot of teams that people think we should beat, and knocked on the door with a ton of teams and didn't finish. Now we finished," Doeren said. "If you want to be in the conversation, you have to win games like today."
Finally beating Florida State was extra satisfying for the Wolfpack's seniors after coming close before. In 2014, they led 24-7 in the first quarter only to see the Seminoles rally. Last year, a 20-10 lead in the third quarter evaporated as FSU scored the final 14 points.
"After four years and all the disappointments, to get this win on the road was big," said tight end Jaylen Samuels, who had two touchdowns.
The key to the Wolfpack's strong start is that they are executing on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Ryan Finley has not thrown an interception in 224 attempts, the longest streak in the nation. They have also started fast — scoring on their first offensive possession in all four games — and they've maintained momentum by scoring in the final two minutes of the first half.
"He's managing the offense. He's giving his receivers a chance. He's not making mistakes with the ball and hurting our team. He's having a heck of a year right now," Doeren said of Finley.
The defense, which features seven senior starters, has allowed only four touchdowns in 12 red-zone opportunities. Defensive end Bradley Chubb is tied for the conference lead in tackles for loss (7.5) and has 3.5 sacks.
The biggest improvement, though, might be mental. After close losses to FSU and at Clemson last season, Chubb said the program has emphasized finishing games and avoiding what happened after the OT loss to Clemson, when the Wolfpack dropped five of their next six.
Despite a Florida State safety and blocked punt in the fourth quarter, N.C. State still didn't allow itself to be fazed.
"We couldn't let the game beat us like prior seasons. We're proud of ourselves for finishing," Samuels said. "We knew our time was coming if we would execute. We played great as a team."
N.C. State has a good chance of winning its first two ACC games for the first time since 2006 when it hosts Syracuse on Saturday. After that, the schedule gets more difficult with three ranked opponents in four games, beginning with a Thursday night game against No. 17 Louisville on Oct 5. There's also an Oct. 28 trip to No. 22 Notre Dame and hosting No. 2 Clemson the following week.
"It's no easy task," Doeren said. "Our players came here with a dream three and four years ago and most of those guys are out there. That was to help me and our staff elevate our program and be competitive and be a contender in this conference."
More AP college football: http://collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25
Follow Joe Reedy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/joereedy