NOTEBOOK: Huge Game for Pack

NC State (4-0) returns to the field Saturday looking to upset Virginia Tech (2-2) in Carter-Finley Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 pm, and the game will be televised on ABC.

The NC State-Virginia Tech series dates back to 1900, with the Hokies holding a 25-18-4 edge.

Since 1986, NC State and Virginia Tech have met eight times on the gridiron. Although the Hokies have come out on the positive end in terms of final score in five of those meetings (the record between the two teams is 2-5-1 since 1986), the scoring margins have been much closer.

Prior to last season's 38-10 Hokie win in Blacksburg, an average of only 2.7 points had separated the two teams in the previous seven games. The largest margin of victory had been a 7-0 Wolfpack win in Raleigh in 1991 and the closest was a 13-13 tie in Blacksburg in 1992.

The Wolfpack and Hokies have met three times as fellow members of the ACC, with Virginia Tech taking two of the three. The Pack won 17-16 in Blacksburg in 2004 and the Hokies won the 2005 meeting in Raleigh and last year's game in Blacksburg. This will mark the first time that Virginia Tech has visited Raleigh since the opening of the 2005 season, when the Wolfpack fell 20-16.

In the 47 times that NC State and Virginia Tech have played, the margin of victory has only been double-digits 14 times and has been by a touchdown or less 24 times.

For the first time since 2002, NC State has opened the season with a 4-0 mark. It marks the 12th time since the inception of the ACC that the Wolfpack has begun the season with four straight wins. It is the best opening mark for NC State under Tom O'Brien.

During his 10 years as head coach at Boston College, O'Brien led his team to one 4-0 start, in 1999. He has never had a 5-0 beginning to a season.

A major factor in the Wolfpack's success so far in the 2010 season has been the addition of depth on the front lines. Due partly to attrition and mainly to injury, depth, has been tough to come by in the first three years of Tom O'Brien's tenure at NC State. That lack of depth was particularly hard to over- come on the offensive and defensive lines.

This year, however, is a different story. In Saturday's win at Georgia Tech, the defensive line was able to substitute on almost every other series, with the four starters seeing 40 snaps each and the four second-team players each see- ing 26 snaps of action. Ten players saw action on the offensive line.

To compare the numbers to last season, only seven players saw action on the offensive line in the fourth game of the season (versus Pitt) and although nine got in on the defensive line, only four played more than 12 plays.

For the first time since the week of Sept. 7, 2003, NC State has made an appearance in the Associated Press poll. With a 4-0 start to the season, the Wolfpack is currently ranked 23rd.

NC State was ranked 16th in the preseason of 2003, Philip Rivers' senior campaign. The Pack climbed to 14th after opening the season with a win over Western Carolina, but after a loss to unranked Wake Forest fell to 23rd before traveling to No. 3 Ohio State. Although NC State managed to take the Buckeyes into three overtimes before falling by six points, a 1-2 overall record forced the squad out of the polls for the remainder of that season.

Between the last practice before last year's season finale against North Carolina (Nov. 26, 2009) and the first practice of this year's fall camp (Aug. 3, 2010), 250 days elapsed. That's the amount of time that Wolfpack quarterback Russell Wilson DID NOT practice football. He missed spring practice. He missed seven-on-seven drills in the summer. He missed football workouts in the Murphy Center weight room.

Instead, he was playing baseball for the Wolfpack squad in the spring and for the Colorado Rockies' Tri-Cities Dust Devils in the summer Many people have said that Wilson couldn't possibly be back to his previous form after missing so much time.

In the season opener, the Pack broke the huddle with 12 men at one point, the type of thing that has been almost unheard of under Wilson's leadership. And although he threw for 306 yards in the opener, he barely crossed the 100-yard mark at Central Florida and posted the lowest completion per- centage of his career, completing 10-of-30 throws (except for a 1-5 mark in his first college game versus South Carolina in 2008, when he left the game with a concus- sion in the first half).

However, a look at Wilson's overall stats in 2010 and his performance in the wins over Cincinnati and Georgia Tech might show that the 50+ days he's been back focused on football may outweigh the 250 he missed.

He's thrown for over 300 yards and three touchdowns in three of the four games this season. He threw 136 passes without an interception this season (168 in a row dating back to last season). He ranks second in the ACC this week in passing average (278 yds/game) and leads the league in total offense (299 yds/game for the 14th-best mark nationally). With 11 touchdown throws this season, he is tied for second nationally in that statistic. And most importantly, the Wolfpack posts a 4-0 record.

If NC State's receiving corps is as good as advertised, it would seem that at least a couple of the Wolfpack wideouts would be listed among the ACC leaders in receptions or receiving yards. After all, their quarterback ranks second in the league and 12th nationally in passing yards and the team leads the league and ranks 19th nationally in that category.

But a glance at the conference stats show that not a single NC State receiver ranks in the top 10. Instead, 15 different players have caught passes this season and five have tallied double-digit reception totals. In three of the four games in 2010, passes have been caught by 10 or more different players.

The versatility of the Wolfpack's passing game is evident by looking at the players who are leading the team in receptions. Of the top five pass catchers this sea- son, three are wide receivers, one is a halfback and one is a tight end. Eight different players have at least one touchdown catch this season. Ironically, the Wolfpack's most highly-touted wideouts, Jarvis Williams and Owen Spencer, have just one TD between them.

It isn't very often that a team emerges from playing Georgia Tech leading the league in time of possession (the Yellow Jackets led the ACC and ranked third nationally in that category last season). But the Wolfpack dominated the TOP by over six minutes in the win in Atlanta and now ranks first in the league and 19th nationally by averaging 32:31 minutes of offense per game.

NC State halfbacks Dean Haynes and Mustafa Greene had never played in a collegiate game before September 4. Now, less than a month later, the redshirt freshman and true freshman are playing like seasoned vets.

Haynes has started every game of the 2010 campaign, although he moved over from the defensive side of the ball just two weeks before he was named the starter. He has tallied 213 yards on 43 carries, scored two touchdowns and caught a 34-yard pass. Haynes redshirted last season at safety and started off 2010 preseason camp playing in the secondary. The Tunnel Hill, Ga., native played quarter- back and running back in high school, leading his area in rushing with 878 yards and 18 touchdowns as a senior.

Greene has come off the bench to rush for 242 yards on 53 carries, crossing the goal line four times. He is the Wolfpack's third-leading receiver with 11 catches for 123 yards. He was named the ACC's Rookie of the Week after the win over Cincinnati. He has rushed for a touchdown in each of his first four games - the first time a Wolfpack player has done that in his first four games since quarterback Tol Avery in 1980.

Greene was ranked the 26th-best running back in the nation by last season at Irmo High School in South Carolina. He rushed for 1,387 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight games, averaging nine yards per carry.

The young tandem has combined for 612 all-purpose yards in 2010.

NC State enters the Virginia Tech game tied for 14th nationally in turnover margin, with nine takeaways to just four giveaways for a +5 mark. The Wolfpack didn't turn the ball over in its first two games, fumbled twice in the win over Cincinnati and had a fumble and an interception at Georgia Tech.

The Pack's success in holding onto the ball is even more impressive considering that in 2009, NC State finished the season ranked 114th nationally in turnover margin, with 25 turnovers to just 14 takeaways.

Saturday proved what the Wolfpack faithful have believed all along: Nate Irving is a game-changer on defense. Evidence of that fact might be that when the senior middle linebacker is in the starting lineup, the Pack posts a 13-4 record. In the win over Georgia Tech, Irving tallied a career-high 16 tackles, including 4.5 behind the line of scrimmage and two sacks. He was named the National Defensive Player of the Week by Walter Camp Football Foundation for his performance.

It was a long time, 644 days to be exact, since No. 56 had run out of the tunnel at Carter-Finley Stadium prior to the Western Carolina game. In the press conference following his first game back since the 2008 season, Irving said his emotions had ranged from happiness at being back, to frustration at missing so much time, to anger that he normally directs at the opposition.

Irving was a huge key to the NC State defense heading into 2009. In 2008, he was an honorable mention All-ACC performer, but would have battled for first-team honors if he hadn't been slowed by injuries. He tied for third on the team in tackles despite missing three complete games and most of two more, and he led the team in interceptions with four -- the most ever by a Wolfpack linebacker. He was looking forward to a huge campaign in 2009 and was on several preseason All-ACC squads.

However, early in the morning of June 28, 2009, his season came to a standstill. He decided to leave his home in Wallace, N.C., in the wee hours of the morning to make the hour-and-15-minute drive back to Raleigh, where he would begin summer school classes the next day. Just 20 minutes from his destination, he fell asleep and ran off the road. The mammoth SUV he was driving flipped multiple times, hit several trees and when he came to he was in a hospital.

Irving sustained a multitude of injuries, including a collapsed lung, broken rib, separated shoulder and a compound fracture in his leg. He spent three days in the hospital and months rehabbing.

Although he says that the most painful part of the accident was missing football, Irving knows he is blessed to be alive. He lost almost 30 pounds during the ordeal but has gained most of that back.

Although his streaking was a little more modest than when he did it last season, quarterback Russell Wilson still posted a pretty impressive roll. Before being picked off in the fourth quarter of Saturday's win at Georgia Tech, Wilson had thrown 168 passes without an INT, dating back to the Virginia Tech game last season.

In 2008-09, Wilson put together a much longer streak, the longest in NCAA history in fact, when he threw 379 passes without being picked off.

After four games in 2010, the NC State special teams have been credited with two blocked punts. At Georgia Tech last Saturday, the first score of the game came when Asa Watson blocked a kick and Jarvis Williams scooped it up and ran it into the endzone.

In the win over Cincinnati, Colby Jackson blocked a punt.

In the entire 2009 campaign, the Wolfpack blocked just one punt. The team blocked two in 2008 and had just one in 2007.

Much has been said about the Wolfpack offense. Much has been said about the Wolfpack defense. Both are receiving much deserved credit for NC State's 4-0 start to the 2010 campaign. But a large factor in the team's success has been the solid play for the Wolfpack special teams. Although the Pack's actual kickers have struggled some, with Josh Czajkowski missing two field goals in Saturday's win at Georgia Tech and punter Jeff Ruiz being replaced by walk-on Andy Leffler, the kicking teams and kick-coverage teams have been solid.

NC State currently ranks third in the nation in punt return yardage defense, as the opponents have returned five punts for a gain of one total yard.

NC State has also blocked two punts this season.

NC State has a pair of special-teams defenders this season with a few things in common. One, they have both handed out several chinstrap-stretching tackles on special teams. Two, they both started off their careers as walk-ons to the Wolfpack program. Three, they both have the same last name. And four, well, they both have the same parents.

The Gentry brothers, fullback Taylor and halfback Zach, rank first and fifth on the team in special-teams tackles this season. In 2009, Taylor led the team with 21 special-teams' stops and 219 plays on the various special-teams units. This season, Taylor and Zach have played 91 and 75 special-teams snaps respectively.

Taylor, a junior, is in his third season as the Wolfpack's starting fullback and has earned a scholarship. He has never rushed the ball, but has pulled down 23 catches in his career and is one of just two NC State players with a two or more touchdown receptions in 2010. The coaching staff says that he is a leader in the Wolfpack huddle and has been a huge help with the young halfbacks who have seen the bulk of the action this season. Zach, a sophomore, is a halfback, but has seen action only on special teams this season. The Gentrys' mother, Kathryn Varner Gentry, was a featured baton twirler in the NC State marching band from 1984-85 while their father Rick also attended NC State.

Junior linebacker Audie Cole was the team's leading tack- ler in 2009, but never had he dominated a game like he did against Central Florida on September 11. Cole was credited with a dozen stops in the contest, including nine solo stops, a 10-yard sack and two other tackles for loss. He also pulled down his first career interception and forced another fumble on a play that ended up being overturned.

Cole, who had twice as many tackles as any other defender in the game (for either team) was front and center in the Wolfpack's aggressive defensive scheme, making plays all over the field. He continued in that vein in the win over Cincinnati, tallying seven tackles in 60 snaps, including a six- yard loss. He also forced a key fumble in that victory.

Cole, who was named the ACC Defensive Back of the Week and the ACC Player of the Week for his performance, is the Pack's second-leading tackler for the season with 24.

Senior placekicker Josh Czajkowski set an NC State record for consecutive point-after-touchdown makes in the Sept. 4 win over Western Carolina. He added to that streak in the next two contests before missing his third of four attempts in the win over Cincinnati Czajkowski connected on 83 straight, dating back to the 2008 campaign. He now ranks second in NC State history in PAT percentage, as he has hit 94 of 96 tries for his career, a .979 mark.

Czajkowski ranks fourth in school history in field goal percentage (.812), tied for seventh in field goals made (30) and third in total PATs (94). He is just four PATs from setting the NC State career mark in that category.

Thank goodness for Jake Vermiglio! Heading into the September 16 game versus Cincinnati, the senior offensive tackle had started 21 games for his career. That tally was more than double the total of the other four starting offensive linemen combined! The other four players who started that contest had combined to start eight games prior to the win over the Bearcats.

Gary Gregory, who was subbing for the injured Mikel Overgaard at right tackle last week, started his first career game against UC. Andrew Wallace had started four, and guard Zach Allen and center Cam Wentz had started two before getting the nod in that Thursday night game. The return of R.J. Mattes has helped the experience factor on the offensive line greatly.

Mattes, who started eight games at guard before suffering an ACL injury at Florida State last season, played for the first time since the injury against Cincinnati and started the Georgia Tech contest at right tackle.

He has played 120 snaps and graded out surprisingly well considering how much time he had missed.

The 2010 version of the Wolfpack football team has a central theme: YOUTH. Of the 77 scholarship players listed on the roster, 45 (58%) are either true freshmen, redshirt freshmen or sophomores (redshirt or true).

Although the youth of this year's team might be a concern early in the season, it certainly bodes well for NC State's future. On the depth chart for Virginia Tech, 43% (19) of the 44 players listed on the offensive and defensive two-deep charts are either true or redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

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