When I think about today’s game, I recall the first glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel. I had been going to NC State football games my whole life (in fact, one of my earliest memories is of the eerie silence settling over C-F when Penn State beat us on a last second 54-yard field goal).
As I became more aware of what was happening on the field – from the nutty mediocrity of the Monte Kiffin era to the humorless disaster that was Tom Reed football – one thing was constant. State lost. A lot. Being a kid, then an adolescent, the game action became kind of secondary. My cousins and I would routinely leave our “Wolves’ Den” seats (it was a gentler time, when parents sat in the real stands and let their kids roam freely on the grass bank and bleachers), grab cardboard boxes from near the concession stands, and slide down the pine needles near the fieldhouse. This was awesome, and unlike paper football, never really got old.
During the second game of the Dick Sheridan era, the Wolfpack hung in for awhile against nationally ranked Pitt. But it was the 4th quarter now, with the Panthers up 14-3. Off to the pine needles we went. But then something changed. The stadium started getting energized. For the first time I could recall, we abandoned the needles to check out the game. And what an ending. A touchdown and two-point conversion made it 14-11, and Erik Kramer and company promptly got the ball back inside the Pitt 30 (on a blocked punt or bad punt snap, I think). Our offense stalled, but Mike Cofer boomed a 48-yard FG to lead the Pack to a tie. At the post-game tailgate, I asked my Dad if he would take us to a bowl game if we made one. After he stopped laughing (and it may have been the longest I ever heard him laugh), he said “sure.” And he was true to his word.
I remember that Sheridan and Kramer even made it into Sports Illustrated the following week. For the first time since I understood what was happening, NC State football was relevant. And for my money, 1986 is still the most exciting football season I’ve experienced.
Fast forward 23 years (and maybe 2 weeks), and we seemingly are at a crossroads again. This is a game that NC State needs for national respectability. And Pitt is a solid team. But “good opponent” does not necessarily equal “bad matchup” – and I’ve liked State’s chances all along, every bit as much as I dreaded the South Carolina matchup. You see, I trust Tom O’Brien as a coach. But we can’t line up against physical teams with SEC speed. Not yet, anyway. But we can beat good teams.
I was 100% confident about this game before Owen Spencer (otherwise known as the only Pack WR who gets open) got hurt. TJ Graham is a fun player to watch. But as a route runner…he’s a great kick returner. His cohorts aren’t much better, although Jarvis Williams is showing some signs of development. And perhaps the weather will be the great equalizer, elevating the importance of the steady possession receiver. We need Jarvis’ A game this afternoon. No question.
But there is a flip side to the injury bug – Jake Vermiglio will be back. Jake is arguably the Pack’s best, most physical offensive lineman, and certainly our best tackle. Better tackle play will keep Russell Wilson alive to make plays. Better tackle play will allow us to deploy our not-so-secret weapon in the passing game instead of staying in to block. Your key to the game is George Bryan. With the potential for a wet field and a wet ball, what more can you ask for than an offensive tight end with great hands and the feet of Baryshnikov?
This will by no means be an easy victory. But I’m predicting that a career day from George Bryan will just barely carry us across the finish line, despite RW’s incredible “no interceptions” streak coming to an end.
NC State 24, Pittsburgh 23