No, the Dana Holgorsen offense isn't in place quite yet at West Virginia as dreams of a BCS bowl game have been replaced by the reality of Orlando and the Champs Sports Bowl.
West Virginia and NC State were in the hunt for a possible January bowl right down to their final regular season games, but were unable to crack through and cross the finish line. The Wolfpack lost to Maryland, 38-31, squandering a chance to win the Atlantic Division and face Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship game,
while the Mountaineers watched helplessly at the beginning of the month as a Dave Teggart field goal denied them a league championship and a BCS berth, sending Connecticut to the Fiesta Bowl.
Ask most observers, and they'll tell you that West Virginia is still the class of the Big East Conference. It has the best overall record, highest ranking, and dropped three games to bowl teams by only 14 points combined.
Even after finishing strong, clubbing rival Pittsburgh and winning the last four games by an average of 16 points,
the rough patch at the end of October put a cap on the postseason ceiling. The ‘neers lost back-to-back games to Syracuse and Connecticut, sputtering on the offensive side of the ball,
while the defense, to the contrary, has been a wire-to-wire brick wall, ranking no lower than third nationally in sacks, run defense, scoring defense, and total D.
After winning nine games in each of the last two seasons, West Virginia hopes to break double-digits for the first time since 2007,
all while head coach Bill Stewart's tenure is over with the program
going a different direction. Having failed in three years to elevate what he inherited from Rich Rodriguez,
Stewart will be replaced by Holgorsen in an attempt for Mountaineer
football to take the next step up.
NC State has clearly exceeded expectations in 2010, yet there's a feeling of unfinished business around Raleigh. After getting to 6-2 with an Oct. 28 victory over Florida State, the Pack controlled its own destiny in the Atlantic, but couldn't close the deal. A bit of an enigma, especially away from Carter-Finley Stadium, it dropped three of its final four road games, including the heartbreaker in College Park on Nov. 27. Still, it was a breakthrough year for a program that hasn't won this many games since 2003. And just in the nick-of-time, too, for head coach Tom O'Brien, who's still a game under .500 after four years with the school.
It was the return of two players that really got the Wolfpack over the top this fall. QB Russell Wilson, who doubles as a star second baseman, was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies, but decided to play another year of football. He's accounted for 35 touchdowns and earned a spot on the All-ACC second team. On defense, LB Nate Irving made his long-awaited return to the field after a serious car accident kept him out for all of 2009. A ferocious defender, he made it to the All-ACC first team with 88 tackles, 20.5 tackles for loss, and six sacks.
The ACC's best passing offense versus the Big East's top D. It doesn't rise to the level of a BCS bowl game, but it'll still make for an intriguing game-within-the game ...even if that game has a bit of a consolation feel for NC State and West Virginia.
Players to Watch: West Virginia's Geno Smith has blossomed into one of the nation's better young quarterbacks, picking up some of the slack as RB Noel Devine dealt with injuries. Just a sophomore and a first-year starter, he led the Big East in passing efficiency and showed tremendous poise in the pocket. He's thrown 23 touchdown passes and only six interceptions, looking like an underclassman in just the Syracuse game. Especially against a defense that wants to bring the pressure as much as possible, he'll be looking to distribute the ball quickly to receivers Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders and let them make things happen after the catch.
Coordinator Jon Tenuta has had a profound impact on the NC State defense, helping transform it into an attacking, playmaking unit. While Irving will be Smith's biggest concern, it's not as if he'll rest easy if No. 56 is blocked. The Wolfpack is flush with playmakers at linebacker, a unit that also includes Terrell Manning and Audie Cole. A couple of big and athletic defenders on the outside, they've benefited from all of the attention Irving receives, combining for 20.5 stops behind the line and 9.5 sacks. These three will cover a lot of ground and occupy plenty of blockers Tuesday night.
Wilson is the linchpin of the Wolfpack offense, but he gets lots of support from the receivers, a deep and talented crew. Five different players have caught at least three touchdown passes, testament to the quarterback's penchant for not playing favorites. He can locate Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams on the outside or work the middle of the field with All-ACC TE George Bryan. While NC State would love to get more from the running game, recent history and a No. 93 ranking suggest it's not going to happen. In all likelihood, the Pack's fate will rest on the right arm—and two legs—of Wilson, who'll once again need broad shoulders to engineer a victory.
The Pack pass-catchers are good. The West Virginia pass defenders are better, creating an interesting match up every time Wilson drops back to throw. The Mountaineers have as much secondary talent as anyone in the country, boasting three all-stars and a unit that's yielded five touchdown passes in the last nine games. Keith Tandy and Brandon Hogan are the All-Big East corners and future pro players, but Hogan is out with a knee injury. At 6-5 and 221 pounds, Robert Sands leads a trio of safeties that has tremendous range and athleticism. In total, seven of the defense's regulars were named first or second team all-conference, with the last line of defense toting most of the hardware.
West Virginia will win if ... Devine is healthy and plays up to his full potential.
Ironically, the best player entering the season wound up being the one missing ingredient for the Mountaineers in 2010. Devine was never quite right this year, saddled with foot and ankle injuries that have limited him to one 100-yard game since Sept. 18. The hope is that three weeks without contact will help get him back to full speed for his final college game. If so, West Virginia will possess balance and explosiveness on offense to go along with that stingy defense. It's a combination of talent and options that'll be too much for an NC State team that's far more one-dimensional and reliant on a single player.
NC State will win if ... it wins the turnover battle.
It's always big, but particularly in this game. With two dozen on the year, the Wolfpack has done a good job of creating takeaways and havoc, a trend that must continue in Orlando. Remember when West Virginia lost at home to Syracuse back in October? Smith threw half of his season total of interceptions in that game. In the crippling loss to Connecticut, the Mountaineers fumbled seven times, losing four of them. They can be sloppy with the ball, something NC State will have to perpetuate. Also, it'll be critical for Wilson to made sound decisions when he's on the field. A model of accuracy in his first two seasons, he's been uncharacteristically careless this year, throwing a pick in each of the last nine games.
What will happen: In a game of contrasting personalities, the West Virginia defense will have the biggest impact on the final outcome.
Coordinator Jeff Casteel has done a brilliant job with the group, making it air-tight throughout the season. Wilson is dangerous, but he'll need more balance to solve this D. With little concern from the ground game, the Mountaineers will scheme to stop the pass, picking off a pair of Wilson's throws. The offense won't be lights out, but the combination of Smith versus an average secondary and a well-rested Devine will provide enough production to move the chains and reach the end zone. With a chance to finish the year ranked,
and with the transition to come, West Virginia will play with a little extra motivation and sense of purpose.
CFN Prediction: West Virginia 28 … NC State 20 ... Line:
West Virginia -2.5
CFN's Take: NC State vs. West Virginia
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