KICKOFF: Thursday, 7:30 ET
SITE: Carter-Finley Stadiium, Raleigh, N.C.
SERIES: Florida State leads 21-9 (last meeting, 2009, Florida State 45-42)
RECORDS: Florida State 6-1, 4-0; North Carolina State 5-2, 2-1
POLLS: Florida State (16 AP, 15 USA Today)
PREDICTION: Florida State 34-28
KEYS TO THE GAME
-- For Florida State: Get a pass rush going. The Seminoles are facing one of the best quarterbacks and offensive teams they'll see this season. On the flip side, the Wolfpack has been mediocre on defense, and it will be a matter of whether Florida State QB Christian Ponder can prevent the kind of slow, struggling start that would fuel the crowd and the 'Pack.
-- For N.C. State: Force more turnovers than it commits. That means QB Russell Wilson will have to take better care of the football than he was doing heading into the bye week. He has thrown eight interceptions over his last three games, a trend that has to stop for the team to have a realistic chance of upsetting the Seminoles.
SCOUTING THE TEAMS
-- There is some uncertainty with Florida State's offense, based upon on how healthy QB Christian Ponder really is, along with the Seminoles' struggles to produce a downfield passing attack. But the running game has been one of the nation's best, averaging 211.7 ypg for the No. 19 sport among FBS teams. The Seminoles have set up the run as their big-play staple and used it to free Ponder on rollout throws. But as Boston College showed, teams will continue to walk up safeties and blitz linebackers unless the Seminoles can burn teams with play-action throws. The Seminoles' offensive line was mediocre at best in the BC game, but maybe part of it was the letdown from the Miami game.
The difference in Florida State's defense, aside from new coordinator Mark Stoops' more suitable scheme, has been the play of the defensive line. The Seminoles have regained their speed and prevented teams from making big yards going around the edges and into open field. The N.C. State game represents another chance to prove dramatic improvement. A year ago, the Seminoles' won a 45-42 track meet in a game that looked like flag football. The Seminoles surrendered 538 yards total offense to the Wolfpack, plus another 107 in kick return yards, and somehow still won on Bert Reed's three-yard run. It was a game that helped elevate N.C. State QB Russell Wilson, who passed for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
N.C. State's offense faces a big challenge against the Seminoles. Florida State leads the ACC in sacks with 30, and perhaps not coincidentally, also leads the conference in scoring defense (16.1 ppg). Protecting QB Russell Wilson will be one of the keys to the game for the Wolfpack. Wilson has eight interceptions over the past three games.
FSU QB Christian Ponder is expected to be healthy enough to play this week, and like the Wolfpack's Wilson, he's a threat to run as well as pass. The Wolfpack has succeeded defensively this season by being aggressive, and it will try to do what it can to get to the Florida State quarterback without leaving its secondary too exposed. The 'Pack is third in the ACC in sacks with 21.
Seminoles: At this point last season, QB Christian Ponder had passed for 2,176 yards, 12 TDs and one interception. He had a 70 percent completion ratio. After seven games this year, he has passed for 1,187 yards, 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions with a 60 percent completion ratio. ... Six of the last nine games between the Seminoles and Wolfpack have been decided by a touchdown or less. ... The Seminoles are 4-0 in the ACC for the 10th time since they started competing in the conference in football in 1992. Each time FSU has gone on to win or share the ACC football title. ... The Seminoles chose to practice three days last week, giving players Sunday, Monday and Friday off, but scheduling a practice Saturday to begin implementing a game plan for N.C. State. While Florida State's administration has been reluctant to host a Thursday night home game (the Seminoles have done it only once), coach Jimbo Fisher said he is open to the idea. ... For the season, Florida State now has 40 pass deflections in seven games. The 2009 defense broke up 46 passes in 13 games.
Wolfpack: The 2010 team is by far, the fastest-starting of the Tom O'Brien era. His three previous squads began the season 1-5, 2-6 and 3-5. ... One reason for the Wolfpack's improved record this season is its tough third-down defense. North Carolina State is holding its opponents to a 28.7 percent conversion rate, the top mark in the ACC and the sixth-best mark in Division I college football. ... The Wolfpack is 2-1 in the ACC's Atlantic Division to FSU's 4-0 conference mark. ... N.C. State is throwing for a league-best 312.6 ypg and total offense (448.9 ypg). ... WRs Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams, have combined for 107 receptions for 1,523 yards, which accounts for 60 percent of the team's total receptions and 70 percent of the yardage. ... QB Russell Wilson is the ACC leader in passing with his average of 303.4 ypg. ... The Wolfpack's defense is allowing opponents to convert only 28.7 percent of third-down opportunities, sixth-best nationally.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
CB Greg Reid -- He'll likely be matched up against N.C. State WR Owen Spencer or Jarvis Williams, the top two go-to elements on the Wolfpack offense. Reid has been most dangerous as a punt returner, however, forcing teams to punt out of bounds or try shorter, higher punts that can't be returned.
QB Christian Ponder -- How will he play with his elbow injury? No one knows, of course, but it's the major issue with this team right now. A year ago, he passed for 227 yards and two touchdowns against the Wolfpack. The Seminoles would gladly take those totals again. The issue will be how sharp he looks after some limited work in practice the past week.
DE Brandon Jenkins -- He leads the team with four sacks and in tackles for loss (seven solo), and he will be vital in a defensive plan to keep Wilson in check.
LB Nate Irving -- Irving was named a semifinalist for the Butkus Award this week, which is given to the top linebacker in college football. He'll need to have a kind of game worthy of the great Dick Butkus, the award's namesake, for the Wolfpack to stop the Florida State offense.
QB Russell Wilson -- Wilson has to strike a balance between aggressively attacking the FSU defense and not being reckless enough to turn the ball over. He has the potential to hurt the FSU defense if it overpursues and if the line can handle the pressure, but if he throws interceptions as he has the past three games, the Wolfpack is in trouble.
CB C.J. Wilson -- Wilson has two interception returns for touchdowns already this season, against Central Florida and Boston College. In a game in which one big play might make the difference, Wilson will get plenty of chances when Christian Ponder and the Florida State receivers target the Wolfpack secondary.