Showdown at the crossroads

GoJackets.com previews Thursday night's N.C. State-Georgia Tech football game in Atlanta.

It is received wisdom that today's college football fans have the all the steadfast patience of sugar-dosed 2-year-olds. So little wonder that Chuck Amato, an NC State alum who led them to 11 wins and a Gator Bowl victory three years ago, is being measured in his sixth year for a firecoach.com website .

Missing QB Philip Rivers, and crippled by offensive-line injuries, the Wolfpack went 5-6 last year and missed a bowl trip for the first time in Amato's tenure. They are 1-2 this year because they have played Virginia Tech and because North Carolina has a pretty good team. It's a wonder Amato hasn't already been fired. Even the Charlotte Observer is cracking on his fashion choices.

Tech coach Chan Gailey, while a bit more popular at 3-1 and Top 25 in the polls, hasn't the luxury of a big winning season in his four-plus years. He, too, committed the sin of playing Virginia Tech this year, so he's also hearing grumbles from the firejesus.com'ers (shoutout to The Hive's GTDean!). Thus, we have two pretty good teams meeting in what should be a pretty good midseason game, but for Huge Stakes that could Affect the Futures of the Programs.

Sheesh. Can't you people just enjoy a nice Thursday evening with the Atlanta skyscrapers in the backdrop?

Georgia Tech has owned this series recently, for no particular reason, taking eight of the last nine. The 2002 Wolfpack was 9-0 and No. 8 until an undistinguished Jackets squad came to Raleigh and won 24-17. N.C. State hasn't won in Atlanta since the ESPN broadcast featured Willie Horton ads.

To continue the trend, Tech's undersized, underage offensive line has to snap back from their 16-hurries, 2-sacks, 3-yards-per-rush butt-whipping in Blacksburg and give Reggie Ball a little time to throw. All over his brain fever, Ball will get the green light to run bootlegs and draws, which should help a lot. If he passes and scrambles well, P. J. Daniels should have room to run. If so, N.C. State's no-longer world-class defense could come apart at the seams the way they did in the second half against UNC.

Amato is unlikely to pick a fight with Gailey (as he did in pregame last week with UNC's John Bunting). Tech would like him to do something clownish (aside from the inevitable wraparound shades and red shoes), in order to fire up his team and spur them on to their accustomed 10 penalties a game. The Jackets injury-depleted D will need all the help it can get against the pass-happy Pack.

Where they're coming from: N.C. State's hopes that last year's 5-6 record was a fluke took a hit Sept. 24 when they lost at home to archrival North Carolina, 31-24. North Carolina bullied the Wolfpack in the second half, taking an early fourth-quarter lead and daring N.C. State to do something about it. They didn't. Prior to that game, N.C. State fans were understandably optimistic, despite a 1-1 record, because they had lost to Virginia Tech by only 4 points in their opener. They blew out Eastern Kentucky like a birthday cake, romping 54-10. Thursday will be the first road game in 2005 for the Wolfpack.

Wolfpackers to watch: Amato, simply to gather fashion don'ts....seriously, freshman tailback Toney Baker has a nose for the end zone, scoring twice against UNC despite the fact the Tar Heels held N.C. State to 13 yards rushing. Baker is tied for the ACC lead with 5 TDs, and averages 6.2 yards per carry. When not picking himself off the turf (six sacks against UNC), quarterback Jay Davis is a heck of a passer, completing more than 63 percent of his throws for 267.3 yards per game. Davis' favorite targets are Tramain Hall, who also returns punts, and tight end T.J. Williams, a Mackey Award nominee. On defense, superlative linebacker Stephen Tulloch averages 10.5 tackles per game, second in the ACC. He recorded 19 vs. UNC. Junior defensive end Manny Lawson (6-5, 245) has four sacks, and he's the little fella compared to fellow junior DE Mario Williams (6-7, 285).

Who's hurt: Wolfpack offensive tackle James Newby left the UNC game with back problems, and is listed only as a co-starter on the depth chart. Tech's Reggie Ball is expected to be fully recovered from viral meningitis. Tech expects again to miss DE Eric Henderson, out the past two games with a bad ankle, and tight end Michael Matthews is questionable.

Xs and Os: On offense, the Wolfpack mostly throw the ball short to medium, and run fitfully. Despite Baker's scoring success, sophomore Darrell Blackman is scheduled to get more snaps to beef up the running game. Downfield passing is something they'd like to do more, but their pass protection hasn't been up to it. But given time, Davis is more than capable of finding the open man. On defense, the Wolfpack's 4-3 is solid up front, getting 8 of 10 sacks from linemen and backers. The secondary are known more for their hitting than pass coverage, with three interceptions on the year. Special teams are usually a strength for Amato's teams, but a bad punt snap last week gave North Carolina a touchdown. The Wolfpack have a great kickoff return team (33.8 yard average), bad news for Tech's struggling kickoff squad.

Key matchups: Tech DE Adamm Oliver vs. N.C. State OT Derek Morris. If Henderson remains out, the redshirt sophomore Oliver (6-4, 260) must at least occupy the Wolfpack's one truly big lineman (6-6, 333) to allow blitzers to put pressure on Davis. It will be quickness vs. strength. On offense, Tech fullback Mike Cox must find Tulloch and knock him down to free P.J. Daniels and Tashard Choice.


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