HAYNES: A Big Game Feel
Editor's Note: The Cardinal Gibbons High School lot, where many fans park for NC State home football games, will open at 4 p.m., to allow students and staff to vacate the grounds following their regular school day.
Oct. 27, 2010
BY TONY HAYNES
RALEIGH, N.C. - During his weekly radio show on Monday night, NC State head football coach Tom O'Brien revealed that he had gotten a visit from Wolfpack Club Executive Director Bobby Purcell earlier in the day. Purcell, it seems, wanted to know if O'Brien had any extra tickets for Thursday night's ACC showdown against Florida State at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"I don't have any," O'Brien told Purcell.
Bottom line: If both Purcell and O'Brien are out of tickets, then it MUST be a big game.
The nationally televised contest is scheduled to begin at 7:45. Airtime on the Wolfpack Sports Network is 6:30.
Since laying a big egg at Oklahoma on Sept. 11, the Seminoles (6-1, 4-0) have ripped off five straight victories, including four in a row in the ACC. If there is to be any semblance of a race in the ACC's Atlantic Division, then it will be up to the Wolfpack (5-2, 2-1) to derail the FSU express on Thursday night.
Normally not one to give in to hyperbole, O'Brien admits this is the most important game NC State has played since he took over as head coach four years ago.
"I think without question it is," O'Brien said. "These kids have done a great job of putting themselves in this situation, now it's the second half of the season and we're in a position to make a run at this thing. We can't ask for any more of this football team except to show up and play a great football game.
"We're going to have to be perfect on Thursday night to win and we know that. During the week off we got our legs back, so we should be capable of doing those things."
Following the disappointing 33-27 overtime loss at East Carolina on Oct. 16, O'Brien gave his players the first three days of last week off before bringing them back to the practice field on Thursday.
Florida State, which also had a bye last Saturday, appears to be a far different team than the one that was pounded by the Sooners 47-17 in the second week of the season. In their first year under a new regime headed by Jimbo Fisher, the Seminoles are balanced on offense and dominant on defense.
FSU's excellence aside, the Thursday night atmosphere will provide the NC State program and Carter-Finley stadium with the type of nationwide exposure that can't be matched. Of course, to fully maximize the opportunity, the Wolfpack must also perform well and win to make it completely worthwhile.
"I definitely think it's a huge game for us," said junior quarterback Russell Wilson. "It's a conference game, they're number one in our division and we're number two. You don't want to make too much of it where you put too much pressure on yourself. It's the type of game where you have to step up and make plays. It's a Thursday night game and everyone will be watching."
Wilson completed 20-of-30 passes for 349 yards and five touchdowns against Florida State last year, yet those numbers weren't enough to produce a big victory on the road. Getting 166 rushing yards from tailback Jermaine Thomas and rushing for 278 yards overall, the Seminoles escaped with a 45-42 win. Overall, the two teams combined for 1,093 yards of total offense.
This season, NC State and Florida State are again two of the top three scoring teams in the ACC, but Wilson doesn't necessarily agree that Thursday's meeting will produce as much offense as the crowd at Doak-Campbell Stadium witnessed a year ago.
"You never know what kind of game it's going to be," he said. "Whether it's a high scoring game or a low scoring game, we're going to be prepared for it and they are too. There's going to be a lot of energy, though. You know that because it's a Thursday night game, it's an ACC game and it's in our division. It will be exciting to be out there and it's exciting that we're playing at home."
There's every reason to believe the defenses will put up more resistance in the game on Thursday night. Yielding an average of 434 yards per game last season, Florida State ranked last in the ACC in total defense. But this season under new defensive coordinator Mark Stoops, the Seminoles have enjoyed a remarkable turnaround on the defensive side of the ball. Through seven games, FSU leads the league in scoring defense (16.1 ppg.), ranks second in total defense (308.1), second in rushing defense (104 ypg.) and No. 1 in quarterback sacks (30).
The sack parade is led by sophomore defensive end Brandon Jenkins, who has seven.
"It all starts with their defensive line," Wilson said. "They're very aggressive and they get up-field really well. Their linebackers are really athletic and make plays, and so does the rest of their defense. It starts with their defensive line and goes from there."
Said O'Brien: "They have two really good rush ends, kids that can get up the field and put pressure on the quarterback. They're going to put a lot of pressure on our tackles. Our kids are really going to have to pass protect well."
Like Florida State, NC State has also made major strides on defense since last season. Through seven games, the Wolfpack is on a pace to easily surpass its totals from last year for sacks and takeaways. But the biggest improvement has come in the category of third down defense. After allowing opponents to convert 42 percent of third down plays in 2009, the Pack has been the ACC's stingiest third down defensive team this season, giving up just 29 percent.
Thursday night's game will match strength against strength since Florida State has successfully converted a mind-boggling 49 percent of its third down plays this year. Plus, FSU has rushed for as many yards on average (211.7) as it has passed for (209.4) through seven games.
"They're very balanced," Wolfpack linebacker Audie Cole said. "Before I looked at them this week, I thought they were more of passing team. But just from watching film, they run the ball well and Ponder is a good quarterback who throws the ball well. Going into the Georgia Tech game we knew we pretty much needed to stop the run and in the ECU game, we knew we needed to stop the pass. This one is more of a variable and more things we need to work on."
Picked in the preseason as the favorite to win ACC Player of the Year honors, Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder has seen his numbers fall of dramatically this year. In FSU's last outing, a come-from-behind 24-19 victory at Boston College, Ponder finished with 170 yards passing and two touchdowns, but also had three interceptions and a fumble.
Leading the ACC in passing yards per game (303) and total offense (332), Wilson arguably has been the league's best quarterback. Still, the redshirt junior would like to reduce his turnovers after throwing eight interceptions over his last three games.
"We're staying aggressive in the passing game, which is good for us" Wilson said. "You have to take a few shots here and there near the end of game and end of half situations. It's going to happen sometimes. I'm the type of guy that's going to keep working and trying to get better every single week."
The series between Florida State and NC State over the last decade has been compelling with the Seminoles winning five of the last nine, including three in a row.
"They have such great tradition and have a way with the way they carry themselves," O'Brien said of Florida State. "They have access to such great athletes. They have a lot of NFL players and have had a lot of players that have gone on to play in the NFL. It's fun to play them. They're a great football team and you always want to measure yourself against the best.
"Right now they're the best in our bracket and that's who we're going to measure ourselves against on Thursday night."