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    HAYNES: Another Pack, Pirates Showdown
     
     

    BY TONY HAYNES

     

    With 15th ranked and unbeaten East Carolina (3-0) coming to town, NC State is 1-2. Are we surprised? The honest answer is, of course, no. Going as far back as January when the Wolfpack’s schedule was released, a 1-2 record through three games appeared to be a distinct possibility. Games at South Carolina and Clemson were going to be tough to win, especially with the quarterback position in flux.

     

    And hey, in January, no one knew that the Pack would play most of those two games without its best wide receiver, top tight end, and the team’s MVP running back.

     

    Those circumstances wouldn’t bode well for most teams. Okay, so maybe Southern California could roll out its second and third team tight ends, running backs and wide receivers and still win, but the Trojans should be playing in the NFL anyway.

     

    For all intents and purposes, quarterback Russell Wilson has made two first career starts. He’d barely gotten his feet wet at South Carolina before being knocked out with a concussion. Last week at Clemson, the redshirt freshman was still searching a bit before he seemed to find a comfort zone in the third quarter against the Tigers.

     

    “The quarterback took a step forward, which helped the offense,” said NC State head coach Tom O’Brien. “Russell, after a few hiccups in the first and second quarters, settled down and played better in the third quarter. We have to build on that. We’re going up against a veteran, wily, tough East Carolina defense. We’ll be tested again severely this week.”

     

    The words “wily” and “tough” weren’t always being thrown around to describe the East Carolina defense last season. NC State, in fact, probably had its best offensive game against the Pirates in Greenville, getting 335 yards passing and three touchdowns from quarterback Daniel Evans in a 34-20 victory.

     

    On Saturday, Evans will be the Wolfpack’s third string quarterback, while the rejuvenated ECU defense will look to continue a string of impressive performances. Holding quarterback Pat White and West Virginia’s spread offense to a mere field goal is an accomplishment that speaks volumes.  

     

    East Carolina head coach Skip Holtz was a youngster when his dad, Lou, was running the NC State program from 1972-75. Back then, the Wolfpack was the big brother,’ and usually dished out the expected punishment. Lou was 4-0 against ECU and only one of those meetings was competitive. In 1974, East Carolina made a game of it before losing 24-20. The combined point differential in the other three Lou Holtz versus ECU games was 121-27.

     

    Lou was, among other things, an amateur magician. Well, there must be something in the genes because Skip Holtz has been pulling rabbits out of his hat ever since his arrival at East Carolina three years ago.

     

    In 2004, the season before Holtz took over at ECU, the Pirates went 2-9, a record that included a 52-14 loss to the Wolfpack in Charlotte. Since that time, East Carolina is 23-17 under Holtz.

     

    “Coach Holtz has done a great job,” O’Brien said. “He’s now in his fourth year and his guys took some lumps as young kids. Now they’re seniors and juniors and they’re dishing the lumps back out.”

     

    Much the same way O’Brien hopes NC State’s young guys will likely dish out their share of lumps in a few years. Now to the particulars.

     

    ECU QB Patrick Pinkney against the NC State defense: An interesting match-up. The Wolfpack has been respectable on the defensive side of the ball. In a 27-9 loss at Clemson last week, the Pack gave up a handful of big plays, but was hardly as overwhelmed as it was a year ago when it yielded more than 600 yards to the Tigers. But there are a few things to clean up. The tackling against the Tigers was often a bit sloppy, and a couple of missed assignments on zone drops left the middle of the field open for a few big pass plays to receiver Jacoby Ford.

     

    Even in Greenville, some have been asking “who is this guy?” when watching the new and improved version of Patrick Pinkney this year. Plagued by injuries throughout his career, the 6-0 senior has shown flashes of production, but nothing that would suggest that he’d become a world beater. That all changed on opening day this year when he shredded Virginia Tech’s proud defense, completing 19-of-23 passes for 211 yards and a touchdown. Through three games, Pinkney has completed an astounding 75.9 percent of his throws.

     

    Clearly, he’s comfortable and confident. It’ll be up to the NC State defense to take him out of that comfort zone and create some doubt and indecision. The Wolfpack must do that by making ECU one-dimensional. Put Pinkney into predictable passing situations by stopping the run, get pressure from different angles and make some plays on the football. Pinkney will, on occasion, try to fit the ball into small areas. Proper drops, quick hands and awareness will be required in NC State’s back seven to create some tipped balls that could lead to interceptions.

     

    The Wolfpack won’t have to deal with the plethora of big-play skill people that it encountered last week, but ECU does use receiver Dwayne Harris in much the same way Clemson took advantage of Ford’s talents. Harris, who has 18 receptions for 208 yards, will line-up outside, in the slot and sometimes in the backfield. Finding him out of the huddle and knowing his whereabouts will be important for the NC State defense. Expect ECU to go to him on reverses, bubble screens and deep throws.

     

    The gut of NC State’s defense took a huge hit this week when it was revealed that defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash is out for an indefinite period of time after undergoing knee surgery.

     

    “He’s a very good player,” said the Wolfpack’s other starting defensive tackle, Antoine Holmes. “To say that we’re not going to be missing Cash is a complete lie. But it just means we have to play that much harder in order to win.”

     

    Is this the week the NC State offense to comes alive? That’s hard to say, but the Wolfpack offense did receive some good news for a change when running back Jamelle Eugene returned to the practice field. Out of action since injuring an ankle in the Pack’s final preseason scrimmage, Eugene brings credibility, a positive attitude and a never say die spirit to the huddle. He has been the model of perseverance throughout his career. After starting last season as the third team tailback behind Toney Baker and Andre Brown, he eventually became the team MVP by season’s end. The strength of the NC State offense right now is the tailback position. Brown and underrated Curtis Underwood averaged better than four yards per carry last week at Clemson. The return of Eugene gives the backfield a change-up and a different gear.

     

    On Saturday, those tailbacks will have to be productive to take pressure off of Wilson. His counterpart, Pinkney, stands 6-feet tall and weighs just a tick under 200 pounds. Wilson’s physical measurables are almost identical. Both have strong arms and both are very mobile quarterbacks. So what’s the difference? Pinkney is a senior, has played three years, 16 games and has eight starts under his belt. Wilson, a redshirt freshman, has played less than a game and a half at this level.

     

    “With a young quarterback, they usually see that first read, but when they start going through that progression of the next read, things start happening real fast,” said former NC State quarterback Johnny Evans, the longtime color analyst on the Wolfpack Sports Network. “What he does naturally is to depend upon his legs to buy him extra time. This is a good thing. It will enhance the offense of NC State and it will ultimately help Russell as well. The next progression is for him to really know where all the receivers are down field. It’s going to take some time for Russell to perfect that progression and he’s right in the middle of that learning curve right now.”

     

    It will be interesting to see how much progress Wilson makes this week after playing his first full game last Saturday. ECU’s improved defense has been stingy against the pass, allowing an average of just 149 yards through three games.

     

    A week ago, the Wolfpack drove the football inside the Clemson 10-yard line twice in the third quarter, but only came away with three points. To win this week, not only will it have to score touchdowns, but take advantage of all of its scoring opportunities.

     

    There are still issues with the young wide receivers lining up correctly, making the proper sight adjustments and running more precise routes. At Clemson, Owen Spencer, T.J. Graham, and Jarvis Williams combined for only four catches. In the past, Jamie Barnette had Torry Holt. Philip Rivers had Koren Robinson for one year, and then Jerricho Cotchery for the rest of his career. At the moment, Russell Wilson is still trying to figure out who his go to guy’ is going to be.

     

    The entire operation is a work in progress, which is why field position will again be critical on Saturday. If NC State is constantly backed up inside its own 20, the Wolfpack will be forced to play it fairly conservatively. Offensive coordinator Dana Bible will be much more inclined to turn Wilson loose and take a few more chances if the Wolfpack is fortunate enough to start some drives beyond the 30-yard line.

     

    No one really saw it coming, but last year’s NC State offense had a breakout game against ECU. Could it happen again? We’ll see.


     

     

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