The blame here goes to both the Atlantic Coast Conference and ESPN. The conference is contractually obligated to fill four of ESPN's Thursday night slots, and the network reportedly asked that the Wolfpack's game against the Bearcats be included in that package. Given the restrictions of the schedule, it proved impossible to get State the TV slot after a bye week, which is what the conference usually tries to do.
That cost the Wolfpack its usual off day Monday, and practice was mostly sluggish as the team shook off the cobwebs from the late night and began focusing on Cincinnati. Cincinnati isn't the same team that won the Big East a year ago, but it still is a dangerous opponent that will test the Pack on both sides of the ball in a way the team hasn't seen through the season's first two games.
On Saturday, the defense carried the Wolfpack to victory over UCF. The offense still looks like it's trying to shake off the rust, and may have to replace a starter on the offensive line if Mikel Overgaard's elbow keeps him on the sidelines. All in all, it's a challenging atmosphere in Raleigh heading into the midweek tilt, but at least O'Brien has one factor in his favor: He doesn't have to travel.
--Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros hasn't thrown an interception all season, but that won't faze the North Carolina State defense. After all, they've overcome a streak like that already this season.
Entering last weekend, Central Florida quarterback Rob Calabrese had thrown 98 consecutive passes without an interception. The Wolfpack, however, picked him off three times, including a third-quarter grab that C.J. Wilson returned 43 yards for a touchdown.
--The right side of the offensive line looked like a revolving door against Central Florida, with Sam Jones, Gary Gregory and Jake Vermiglio all seeing snaps there after Mikel Overgaard left with an injured elbow in the first half.
Whether or not Overgaard will be ready to play Thursday is still to be determined, but don't look for Vermiglio to take his place. He's a career-long left tackle, and O'Brien second-guessed himself after the game for weakening that side of the line by using Vermiglio to plug the hole.
SERIES HISTORY: North Carolina State and Cincinnati have never met.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: North Carolina State's defense is ahead of the offense so far in 2010, in part because the lack of an established running game and in part because the passing game still looks unpolished. The Wolfpack have plenty of weapons among the wideouts, however, and may look for a big play early by sending Owen Spencer or T.J. Graham deep. It tried that against Central Florida, and Russell Wilson had Owen Spencer open deep on the second play of the game, but couldn't get the ball to him.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Tony Pike may be gone, but Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros will test the Wolfpack secondary. He hasn't thrown an interception through two games, and is completing more than 60 percent of his passes. Getting pressure from the defensive line and linebackers will be critical in giving the inexperienced NCSU secondary a chance to make plays in the passing game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: They've kept us in games plenty of times before. I think we owed them one. Whatever happened, we'll get it fixed." -- North Carolina State linebacker Audie Cole told The Technician, on how the defense carried the offense in the victory over Central Florida.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cincinnati at North Carolina State, Sept. 16 -- North Carolina State (2-0) comes back on short rest to take on two-time defending Big East champion Cincinnati. It's the first meeting between the two schools, and provides a rare opportunity for the Wolfpack to play before a national audience on ESPN.
KEYS TO THE GAME: It would be a big confidence boost if the Wolfpack passing game got some big plays early. Cincinnati is a tough team to play, but it's also coming off a short week and has the added burden of being the road team. An early touchdown or two could make those Wolfpack legs feel a lot more fresh, and open up the lanes for the freshman running backs to grind out yards and wear the defense down.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Russell Wilson -- Wilson has had a hard time getting the offense going this season, and was just 10 of 30 for 105 yards against Central Florida. He'll be challenged both by Cincinnati and the short week, and there's additional pressure because of the lack of an established running game. If he can show more accuracy early, or hit on a deep ball or two, that could help liven up the offensive attack and take some of the weight off the defense's shoulders.
LB Audie Cole -- Cole had a monster game against Central Florida, and was honored by the ACC for that with a Player of the Week award. He's becoming the defensive leader on the field and can cement that with another strong game against the Bearcats.
CB C.J. Wilson -- Wilson had the play of the day for the defense against Central Florida, an interception return for a touchdown that proved to be the margin of victory. He and the rest of the secondary will be attacked by the Bearcats passing game, and will face a challenge in continuing the big play trends against one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the country.
--RT Mikel Overgaard left the Central Florida game in the first half with an elbow injury and did not return. Sam Jones, Gary Gregory and Jake Vermiglio all saw time there in his absence, and it was unclear early in the week whether Overgaard would be ready to face the Bearcats and who would replace him if he couldn't go.
--RB James Washington is still recovering from an injury and did not play against Central Florida. His status for this week hasn't been determined.