It’s a wierd time of year to play an out-of-conference game against a non-BCS opponent, but that’s the task in front of the Wolfpack: in the middle of their ACC schedule, NC State will take a quick drive to Greenville to play Conference USA’s ECU before finishing up the season with five straight ACC games, followed by a probable bowl berth later on. While it would have no affect on the ACC standings and any possible conference championship, the ECU game is a rivalry game and is important not only for bragging rights but also for in-state recruiting…an area where it is always important to have as many advantages as possible given the crowded field of five Division FBS teams in North Carolina.
Many folks, including the prognosticators who set the betting lines, are predicting a walk in the park for the Pack by naming them a 6-7.5 favorite. It may end up that way, but State has every reason to be wary: ECU is on a roll and playing far better than anyone ever expected, their offense is nearly as powerful a juggernaut and scoring machine as is NC State’s, and for them at least, it is a bitter rival on their home field in a game that they would dearly love to win. While some Wolfpack fans like to dismiss ECU as a “not-a-rival” be sure that the ECU players and their fans certainly do, and that whether or not the Wolfpack fans who like to overlook the Pirates like it or not, by definition it is a rivalry game and will be played and cheered with the intensity that one can expect from a rivalry game. Moreover, the overall series record stands at 16-10, and that relatively even number comes with the fact that the Wolfpack rarely has made the trip down east to play it’s brother UNC system school on their field.
First of all, a win for ECU would give them a great deal of bowl credibility – a win over a BCS team always helps a non-BCS team’s resume. Secondly, NC State has been a thorn in the side of the Pirates of late, winning the last two games between the two, including one where ECU came into Raleigh flying high and thinking of a possible at-large BCS berth for themselves that season. In 2008 the Pirates were ranked #15 in the country, but lost in overtime in what turned out to be the coming out party for All-Conference QB Russell Wilson. To get the win, Wilson drove the Wolfpack down the field at the end of regulation to tie the game, and then he led the Wolfpack to an upset victory in the team’s first OT possession. You can be sure that ECU fans and their players would like to extract revenge for that game, and it is fair to say that right now it is the Wolfpack who will wear the bullseyes on their back.
In other words, ECU has every reason to be more than fired up, and NC State has every reason to be wary and to go into the game with their chinstraps on tight and ready to do battle for sixty full minutes. And with ECU, that might mean a full sixty minutes, as the Pirates have secured a win on the last play of the game once already in 2010.
To win, NC State will have to face down an offense that’s slightly ahead of their own in the national rankings, where currently ECU has the 12th best scoring offense nationally, and the Wolfpack, the 13th. Through five games, ECU has scored 25 touchdowns, and scored an impressive 188 points for a 37.6 point average. One might say that they’ve played lesser competition, and to some extent that may be true, but keep in mind that ECU has also played Virginia Tech and they were able to keep that game close for a couple of quarters.
State, for it’s part, has piled up 225 points in its six games for a 37.5 PPG average. So far this season, no one has been able to stop the Wolfpack completely, as even in a loss to Virginia Tech, the team put up 30 points onto the scoreboard.
For both squads, defense is a question mark, but here is where the differential is the greatest: NC State is ranked #34 in total D, while ECU is a woeful #114 of 120 Division 1 schools. The Pirates have surrendered a pitiful 457.6 yards per game, for an average 6.3 yards-per-play. State is giving up 326.2 yards per game and 5.4 yards-per-play in its own right, a distinct advantage, but not so much of one that it would be reasonable to think that on paper that the Pack stopping unit will be able to shut down the Pirate offense.
Pirate Head Coach Ruffin McNeill commented in his weekly press conference yesterday that he is pleased with the defense so far, despite their results. “The kids are growing up,” he said. “You have to be patient. We know as coaches we have to be and I’ve been through it before. When you have nine new starters and 16 guys who are playing significant reps now who had not before, they have to go through it and learn their way. They have to get knocked down and learn to get back up.”
Against Russell Wilson and his plethora of skilled players to choose from, that may be a difficult task.
Of his own young quarterback, McNeill is very pleased with his growth mid-way through the season: “People have gone into the games against us with totally different packages than they have shown on film. That’s a compliment to our offense and to Dominique for being able to adjust. Southern Miss, which had been at 18-20 percent blitz, probably blitzed in the 35-40 percent range Saturday, which is very high.
“Once the offense got it handled, Dominique made the throw to Michael Bowman on the hot read. It was big. Dominique was really calm. He’s growing right in front of our eyes. He’ll be fine and a great quarterback in this system.”
In other words, the NC State defense and secondary are more than likely to face a significant challenge in Greenville this weekend, and again, it is one that they cannot take lightly if the Wolfpack players are to return to Raleigh with a win under their belts.
Everything about this game on paper leads one to believe that ECU and NC State will be in a shootout, and that’s the sort of game where anything can and probably will happen. If each team is capable of scoring, it puts the onus on the other team to limit its mistakes, keep its efficiency high and convert nearly every chance it gets. That means that turnovers will be critical, as will be play selection and most importantly, play execution. Special teams and hidden yardage will be critical, as neither team can afford to spot the other a great deal of yardage with poor kicks or coverage. Most importantly, no lead will be safe, and even if NC State gets a big lead, it would be very wise to keep hammering away on either side of the ball and play a complete game from kickoff to final whistle.
Pirate fans are bravely talking about feeling an upset brewing, while many Pack fans are blithely expecting a blowout. Both may be wrong: NC State has the higher quality squad and the better record against better competition this season, but it is foolish to discount ECU’s offensive prowess. ECU fans are boasting of the game atmosphere in their stadium, which may be a bit of a factor, but this is the Wolfpack third road game of the season, and in both trips away from the friendly confines of Carter-Finley Stadium so far, they have been able to leave town winners. At the same time, given the offensive capability of each team, a blowout may be an unreasonable expectation. Both teams have shown that they are more than capable of digging up paydirt, and the squad that digs the most up on Saturday afternoon will be the one that wins the game.