Game 5: NC State Wolfpack (3-1) at Miami Hurricanes (3-1, 2-0)
September 29, 2012 12:00 p.m. ESPNU
Miami Gardens, Fla. Sun Life Stadium (74,916)
TV: ESPNU | Radio: Wolfpack Sports Network | Gametracker
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Saturday's noon contest at Miami (3-1, 2-0) will be the first of eight consecutive games for NC State (3-1) against ACC competition. And though this is the Wolfpack's first conference game of 2012, it will, in Coach Tom O'Brien's mind, be like a playoff game.
"We play each ACC game like it's a championship game," O'Brien said. "Each time you get the chance to play, you pick up another rung on that ladder. In the past it's taken about six wins to get [to the ACC Championship game]. Maybe it's going to take seven or eight to get to the game this year, so there's no margin for error if you want to get to Charlotte."
Simply put, the ACC's Atlantic Division is stacked, thanks mostly to the presence of national heavyweights Florida State and Clemson. FSU's victory over the Tigers last week already gives the Seminoles a season-ending tie-breaker advantage over one of its most dangerous challengers. NC State will get the chance to host the `Noles in its own house next week, a game that will receive a lot more attention nationally if the Wolfpack can take care of business Saturday at Sun Life Stadium.
"We're trying to go to the ACC Championship," said State tight end Mario Carter. "The focus is on Miami this week and next week, we'll focus on Florida State. Every game is important to win."
In jumping out to a 2-0 start in conference play, the Hurricanes have defied all laws of logic by winning in spite of giving up a combined total of 78 points to Boston College and Georgia Tech. But if Miami has proven anything, it is a resilient team that features enough big-play weapons on offense to stay in any game. After surrendering an early 19-0 lead last week in Atlanta, the Hurricanes stormed back from a 36-19 deficit to stun the Yellow Jackets in overtime, 42-36.
"I hope it does give them confidence, but we're walking that fine line," Miami head coach Al Golden said. "To be honest with you, I don't want to keep living like this. It's not fun. We're growing mentally tougher, we have some unity in our reservoir that we can rely on and the guys have stayed together."
Back in 1997, Golden was a young graduate assistant coach at Virginia when O'Brien, the offensive coordinator for the Cavaliers at the time, accepted an offer to become the head coach at Boston College. After informing Wahoos coach George Welsh that he was moving on to Chestnut Hill, O'Brien told Golden "pack your bags, we're going to Boston."
O'Brien made Golden his first staff hire at B.C., with Golden serving as linebackers coach from 1997-99. Golden and six other former O'Brien assistants have gone on to become head coaches.
The two know each other very well on the field and off, but as far as O'Brien is concerned, that familiarity won't play a role in Saturday's game.
"Al's really an intelligent guy and he's relentless," O'Brien said. "He's a player's coach and I'm sure those kids love him. He's super organized and he always has been. Once he withstands all the stuff that's going on there, he can move forward and get Miami back in the National Championship picture."
Now in his second year, Golden took over a program that was already under an NCAA investigation when he arrived in Coral Gables in 2011. Because of the NCAA cloud, a number of talented players recruited by the previous staff were forced to move on, leaving Miami with a lot of youth and inexperience at numerous positions.
But those departures haven't stopped the `Canes from fielding a group of speedy, talented skill players on the offensive side of the ball. Senior Mike James was already established at tailback this season before being complimented by elusive freshman Duke Johnson, who leads the nation in all-purpose yards. Johnson is dangerous whether he's touching the ball on offense or in the kicking game. Already a two-time winner of ACC Rookie of the Week honors, Johnson scored four touchdowns in week three against Behune-Cookman. Last Saturday, it was James' turn to reach the end zone four times.
Between Johnson, James and receiver Phillip Dorsett, Miami possesses explosive athletes who can be very difficult to bring down once they're in the open field.
"They've got some real fast, quick guys that can make plays on the perimeter," said NC State safety and Boca Raton native Brandan Bishop. "They're going to catch some balls, but we've got to get them down on the ground and tackle well this week to limit those yards after catch."
Bishop and the Pack defense will also be trying to cool off a hot quarterback on Saturday. Junior Stephen Morris threw for a career-high 436 yards in last week's dramatic win at Georgia Tech, a performance that also included two touchdown tosses. Morris will be the best throwing quarterback the State defense has seen since being torched by Tennessee's Tyler Bray in the opener.
Since the opening night loss to the Volunteers, the Wolfpack defense has settled down, taking the ball away nine times in the last three games, while also holding Connecticut, South Alabama and The Citadel to a measly four conversions on 32 third down plays (12.5%). Something will have to give on Saturday since Miami has successfully converted 51 percent of its third downs through four games.
"I know Tom, so I have an idea of what we're going to face," Golden said. "Between [Mike] Archer and [Jon] Tenuta, you're talking about two of the best coordinators in football over the last 20 years. The combination of those two is something that is obviously working great. They're holding their opponents to 25 percent on third down, they're physical and they execute well. This is going to be a challenge for us."
O'Brien will give most if not all of his tailback reps to Tony Creecy and freshman sensation Shadrach Thornton this week. With Creecy and James Washington banged up last Saturday, Thornton made the most of his first career start by rushing for 145 yards and two touchdowns.
"Like with most kids, you hope that he'll be better this week and more prepared to do things. This defense we'll see will pressure us a lot more than we saw last Saturday. He's a tough kid. From the first day of camp, we've always done pass protection with running backs against linebackers. He wasn't afraid and he'll go out there and get in front of you. He's not afraid to go out and block somebody. We've just got make sure he goes to the right guy because he's going to have to pick up somebody in pass protection this week."
The day after his big debut against The Citadel, Thornton demonstrated wisdom beyond his years by showing up at the Murphy Center with a box of donuts for his offensive linemen.
Unfortunately, however, the forces on the Wolfpack offensive line are growing a bit thinner by the week. Already missing left tackle Rob Crisp, who will be held out of his fourth straight game with a lower back injury, NC State will also be without the services of right tackle Andrew Wallace on Saturday. Wallace, a redshirt senior, sustained a foot injury in The Citadel game.
Since Miami joined the ACC in 2004, NC State has won two of the three league games played between the two schools. But this will be the first meeting since quarterback Russell Wilson drove the `U' secondary batty with a couple of highlight reel scrambles in a 38-28 win at Carter-Finley Stadium back in 2008. Redshirt senior linebacker Sterling Lucas is the only player on the NC State roster who has played against Miami.
Saying he needed to come up with as many as 40 tickets for family and friends, Bishop is eager to finally face the program he followed closely as a kid when he was growing up in South Florida.
"I grew up a Miami fan and went to quite a few games in the old Orange Bowl," Bishop said. "It seems kind of strange that we only play them, what, every four years? I'm definitely excited."
The Wolfpack Sports Network will have a full broadcast day on Saturday that begins with the "Inside Wolfpack Sports" TV show, which will air on MASN and Fox Sports South at 8:30 a.m. This week's show will feature a preview of the Miami-NC State football game and an in-depth interview with NC State men's basketball coach Mark Gottfried. Radio coverage begins at 10 a.m. with the "Mathews Motors Countdown to Kickoff."
For more information on the Wolfpack Sports Network and to submit questions to the broadcast crew all day, visit Twitter/@packradio. Fans can also send a question to former Wolfpack All-American Johnny Evans on `Ask the Analyst' by going here.
The Last Meeting
November 29, 2008