HAYNES: Pack to Face Big East Champs
Sept. 16, 2010
BY TONY HAYNES
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Given the fact that he grew up a Xavier fan, Cincinnati native Tom O'Brien never had a great deal of fondness for the University of Cincinnati.Innercity college rivalries, very much like those we see in the Triangle, tend to be on the intense side.
In O'Brien's case, it was quite easy to root against the Bearcats since his father was a Xavier graduate and one time chairman of the school's athletic board.
Now the head football coach at NC State, O'Brien will get his chance to beat the school he once considered a rival when the Wolfpack (2-0) hosts Cincinnati (1-1) at Carter-Finley Stadium Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Wolfpack Sports Network airtime for the contest is 6:30 p.m.
Although it has one of the five oldest college football programs in the nation (Rutgers, Michigan, Minnesota and Navy are the others), Cincinnati hasn't always been a major player on the national stage. Lately, however, that certainly has changed.
The Bearcats are coming off back-to-back Big East Championships, titles that earned them appearances in the Orange and Sugar Bowls.
"It's great to see they made the most of their opportunity when they had a chance to go to the Big East," O'Brien said. "When you win 33 games the way they have the last three seasons, it just shows how far that program has come and how good they really are."
Of course, that kind of sudden success often has consequences. Brian Kelly, the coach who turned the Bearcats into a BCS power, left for the perceived greener pastures of Notre Dame. Ironically enough, the coach who had once replaced Kelly at Central Michigan also succeeded him at Cincinnati. After leading Central Michigan to a pair of Mid-American Conference Championships and three straight bowl games, Butch Jones is now in his first year with UC.
Jones' major influence in coaching was Rich Rodriguez, who cultivated his spread offense schemes while the offensive coordinator at Clemson, won big with them as head at West Virginia, and now is trying his best to conform the same strategies at Michigan.
The spread works best with quarterbacks who can both run and throw with equal flair, and in junior Zach Collaros, Cincinnati appears to have such a signal caller. Rushing for 106 yards in two games, Collaros actually has twice as many carries (29) as any of the Cincinnati tailbacks. He's also 35-of-58 through the air for 349 yards and three touchdowns.
"It all revolves around the quarterback Collaros," O'Brien said. "It didn't look like it at the time, but it was a blessing for us last week when Godfrey came in the game and started running around. The type of offense that Central Florida played at the end of the game is similar to what we'll have to face this week. They have a lot of quarterback-designed runs and he's a guy that you have to stop."
Indeed, facing UCF's speedy Jeff Godfrey last week may have been a blessing in disguise for the NC State defense. The Wolfpack was cruising with a 28-7 lead entering the fourth quarter before Godfrey, a true freshman, gave the Pack all kinds of fits with his running ability.
NC State defensive end Jeff Rieskamp, who's also a Cincinnati native, says Godfrey helped the Wolfpack prepare for Collaros.
"They're both shifty quarterbacks," he said. "Any experience you can get playing in a game like this can help you out. Russell [Wilson] is a shifty quarterback and we play against him in preseason camp, so we kind of get used to it."
Despite Godfrey's late-game heroics, the Wolfpack defense put together a solid effort last week, holding UCF to just a pair of offensive touchdowns and a paltry 1 of 11 third down conversions. Four of the Pack's five takeaways came on defense, including a third quarter interception by corner C.J. Wilson that he returned for a touchdown.
This week, big-play receivers D.J. Woods (11 receptions for 118 yards) and Armon Binns (10 catches for 114 yards) will be the best pass-catching tandem NC State has faced thus far.
"They have great athletes on the perimeter," said Wolfpack defensive coordinator Mike Archer. "Their receivers are big, strong guys and they throw the ball deep. Collaros is similar to Godfrey, so they're going to look at that film and feel like they can exploit us on the perimeter. They're the defending Big East Champions, so they're good."
Although they dropped their opener at Fresno State, 28-14, the Bearcats have been stout against the running game on defense, allowing an average of just 71 yards through two games.
All Big East linebacker J.K. Schaffer (16 tackles average) and 295-pound tackle Derek Wolfe (13 tackles per game) spearhead the Cincy defense. Other than a three touchdown flurry in the opening half, the NC State offense was hardly clicking on all cylinders in last week's win in Orlando. The Pack finished with just 239 yards of total offense, while quarterback Russell Wilson never found a rhythm, connecting on 10-of-30 throws for 105 yards and one touchdown.
Following the season-opening victory over Western Carolina, O'Brien said Wilson was still rusty after spending much of his summer playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization. Jones, the first-year Bearcats coach, isn't necessarily buying it.
"I'm impressed," he said. "He's played a lot of football for them. The thing that causes you problems is that he can make plays with his legs. If you don't have discipline rushing him, he's going to escape and make plays. He has the arm strength to make plays and he's accurate. I can see what they're saying in terms of baseball and it takes time, but he's a very talented player and he's proven that."
This will be the first ever meeting between NC State and Cincinnati.