Replacement Mike Glennon has taken care of that, and then some.
Glennon has flourished as a junior this season. He threw for 2,790 yards and 28 touchdowns and led N.C. State to a berth in Tuesday night's Belk Bowl against Louisville, a game between 7-5 teams playing very well at the moment.
"We've all made the comparison that he's Matt Ryan reincarnated," O'Brien said. "The way he throws the ball, there's a lot of similarities with Matt. It's just a question of playing and gaining experience. He learned a lot as the year went on. You would expect that. He's a kid that studies the game and works at it."
After a 3-4 start, the Wolfpack won four of their last five games to become bowl eligible.
Glennon threw eight touchdown passes in his final two games, including five in the season finale when he brought the Wolfpack back from a 33-point deficit to beat Maryland and clinch a bowl berth.
Louisville linebacker Dexter Heyman said the Cardinals must slow Glennon if they are to win their second straight bowl game under coach Charlie Strong.
"We have to stop their pass game and make them a run-first offense and that's something people haven't been able to do, particularly late in the year," Heyman said.
Heyman said Glennon has a rocket for an arm, but his skills don't stop there.
"He can really put the ball in a tight window," Heyman said. "And he's smart and savvy. He doesn't throw many interceptions."
Wolfpack tight end George Bryan said the transition to Glennon was easier than most outsiders think. Even though Wilson, who later transferred to Wisconsin, put up big numbers during his three years at N.C. State, Bryan said teammates knew what to expect from Glennon and immediately rallied around him.
"Even in the spring we were with Mike because Russell was gone playing minor league baseball," Bryan said. "It wasn't anything different. At that point we thought Mike was just there as an experiment. But it turned out he was there for the rest of the year - and that was a good thing."
Glennon said replacing a team leader like Russell didn't bother him. In fact, he relished the opportunity.
"I felt like I had a lot of confidence in myself and teammates had confidence in me that I could lead us to a lot of victories and get us to a bowl game," Glennon said. "My personality is kind of laid back so I didn't worry about replacing Russell. I just let things play out."
Louisville has a good quarterback of its own in freshman Teddy Bridgewater, although he has a completely different style than Glennon. Gifted with a knack for keeping alive plays with his feet, Bridgewater is the kind of exciting quarterback who could give the Wolfpack fits.
Bridgewater took over as the team's starter the third week of the season against Kentucky. After an initial rough patch he led the Cardinals to wins in five of their final six games and a share of the Big East title. However, because of a tiebreaker West Virginia represented the conference in a BCS bowl.
"You have to contain him," O'Brien said. "He's such a talented guy with his legs. He has a great arm and can throw the ball. Anytime you have a quarterback who can break the defense down by creating on his own there is the potential for problems."
Bridgewater, one of six freshman starters on offense, finished the season with modest numbers, throwing for 1,855 yards with 12 touchdown passes with nine interceptions. But his mobility helped spark Louisville's stagnant running game.
His best game came against South Florida in the season finale when he threw for 241 yards and three touchdowns.
"I think we play fast and try to eliminate mistakes," Bridgewater said.
If Bridgewater hopes to do the same against N.C. State, he may want to avoid throwing to cornerback David Amerson's side of the field. Amerson led the nation with 11 interceptions in 2011 - four more than the next closest player - and anchored a defense that led the country in picks.
"He has a strong arm and he can move a little bit so you want to rattle him back there a little bit so we can make some plays in the secondary," Amerson said.
Amerson said Bridgewater reminds him a lot of Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, which isn't necessarily good news for the Wolfpack. Collaros threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns in the Bearcats' 44-14 win over N.C. State on Sept. 22.
Of course, N.C. State is much healthier on defense than they were earlier in the season.
"In that game we blitzed a lot and it we weren't getting there - and we paid for it," Amerson said. "So it's imperative that we get to the quarterback."