10. The Return
There was no suspense about Russell Wilson's return for the 2010 season. After signing a professional contract with baseball's Colorado Rockies, Wilson made it clear that he would rejoin the Wolfpack in August.
His return was a critical addition to NC State and helped establish the Pack as one of the most lethal offenses in the nation. Wilson would finish the season with 3,563 passing yards and 28 touchdowns. He also helped lead NC State to a nine win season, a feat accomplished just once in the last 18 years.
9. The Start
While most observers considered NC State a middle-of-the-road ACC team at best, the Pack quickly attracted national attention with a surprising 4-0 start. The Pack whipped Central Florida in Orlando and beat Cincinnati in a nationally televised game at Carter-Finley Stadium but it was a game in Atlanta a week later against Georgia Tech that would be State's biggest challenge to date.
The contest would be the Pack's first crack at the Jacket's triple option attack and State defended it masterfully. However, it was a Russell Wilson led touchdown drive in the fourth quarter after two consecutive Georgia Tech scores had whittled the Pack's lead to just three that put the game away. It was the Wolfpack's best start since opening the 2002 season at 9-0.
8. The Punt
Looking back over the 2010 season, there were several plays that- had they gone differently- could've made State's year even better. One game that seemed to hold a slew of those was the Pack's contest against Clemson in Death Valley.
No matter how generous the Tigers tried to be, the Wolfpack simply refused to accept or take advantage of Clemson's gifts. In a game filled with missed opportunities, one of the biggest plays came with just over three minutes left in the game and State down 14-13. Facing a fourth and one at the Tiger 43 yard line, NC State opted to punt.
Andy Leffler launched a high, short punt that came straight down but bounced back 15-20 yards towards the Wolfpack line of scrimmage. In all, the kick netted just four yards and gave Clemson possession at their own 39 yard line instead of being pinned deep in their own territory. The Pack would hold the Tigers on their ensuing drive but instead of having good field position, State started it's final drive on the 15 yard line. After picking up an initial first down, State followed with four straight incompletions and lost, 14-13.
7. The Game Changer
After a 4-0 start, the Pack was hot and wanted nothing more than to solidify themselves on the national scene with a win at home over Virginia Tech.
State couldn't have started better, jumping out to a 17-0 lead while dominating the Hokies defensively. With the Pack up 17-7 and just four minutes left in the first half, State would methodically drive 65 yards to the Virginia Tech 15 yard line. On third and 10, Russell Wilson slung a pass to the goal line. However, he never saw Tech defensive back Jayron Hosley who snagged the first of three interceptions on the day.
While it's impossible to say how the game would've played out otherwise, a 24-7 lead at half time would've clearly been a huge mountain for the Hokies to climb on the road. Instead, Virginia Tech would return the second half opening kickoff for a touchdown, narrowing the Pack's lead to just three. They would ultimately hand State it's first loss of the season, 41-30.
6. The Gift
After a demoralizing loss to East Carolina, the Pack got a much needed 12 day break before their showdown with Florida State in Raleigh on a Thursday night.
State found itself down 21-7 at half time after being thoroughly outplayed by the Seminoles in the first 30 minutes. The Wolfpack came out on fire in the second half and in the first six minutes of the third quarter, scored two touchdowns to tie the score at 21. After a fourth quarter field goal gave the Noles a 24-21 lead, Russell Wilson and the NC State offense responded by driving 70 yards in six minutes to take a 28-24 lead late in the fourth quarter. Florida State came right back and drove to the Wolfpack four yard line with under a minute to play. Facing second and goal, FSU QB Christian Ponder looked down his tight end on a play action pass.
As a result, his spacing was off and the Seminole running back collided with Ponder's right arm, jarring the ball loose. Wolfpack LB Nate Irving pounced on the ball and secured State's sixth win of the season.
5. The Miracle
Sometimes you lose games you should win. Occasionally you win one you most likely should've lost. Such was the case when NC State faced UNC this year.
Riding a three-game winning streak against the Heels, the Pack came into the game looking for it's longest string of victories against Carolina since defeating UNC five consecutive times ending in 1992. However, a win looked doubtful with the Heels holding a 19-10 lead in the third quarter. Facing a fourth and goal from the UNC two yard line, QB Russell Wilson would pull off the most miraculous play of the year. After scrambling and eluding a sack, Wilson rolled to his right and heaved a prayer into a mass of blue and red in the back of the end zone.
Inexplicably, Carolina DB Da'Norris Searcy seemingly batted the ball back in bounds which allowed Wolfpack WR Owen Spencer to make a diving catch for the touchdown. The Pack would follow with a T.J. Graham punt return for touchdown, field goal and a safety en route to a 29-25 victory over UNC.
4. The Sack
Give UNC credit, they wouldn't take no for an answer in their matchup with NC State in Kenan Stadium. After falling behind 27-19, the Heels drove 79 yards for a touchdown to cut the Pack's lead to 27-25 although they failed on a two point conversion attempt that would have tied the score.
After the ensuing on-sides kick was recovered by the Wolfpack, Carolina held the Pack to a three and out and forced a punt with 36 seconds left in the game. On second down with just 27 seconds left in the contest, UNC QB T.J. Yates dropped back for a pass but the pocket collapsed and he was sacked in the end zone for a safety by Wolfpack LB Terrell Manning.
The play punctuated NC State's defensive effort that day with the Pack tallying seven sacks while holding UNC to -7 yards rushing.
3. The Spot
The stakes could not have been higher for NC State when they traveled to Maryland for the final regular season game of 2010. Win and was off to Charlotte for a spot in the ACC championship game.
For the Pack, the game couldn't have started better. State jumped out to a 14-0 lead and appeared to be in complete control. From that point on, it was a different ball game altogether. The Pack found itself down 38-17 midway through the fourth quarter before putting together a furious rally that saw State score two touchdowns in a matter of four minutes. With just under a minute to go and no timeouts remaining, the Pack desperately needed a defensive stop when Maryland opted to go for it on a fourth and one from the NC State 32 yard line. Maryland RB D.J. Adams was seemingly stuffed for no gain on the play. Adding to the confusion for those watching on TV was that Adams clearly never came close to crossing the yellow line graphic that signaled the first down line to make.
However, the ball was spotted just inches across the first down line, giving the Terps the victory. The play was reviewed but not overturned. The loss ultimately may have been the most disappointing of the year for NC State.
2. The Finish?
Whether QB Russell Wilson will return next year is an unknown. If he does decide to forego his final season at NC State, he couldn't have gone out in more Russell-like fashion than he did against West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl.
He would complete 28-of-45 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns on his way to earning game MVP honors. However, it was the final pass of the night that personified Wilson's career at NC State. On the play he was rushed and hurried out of the pocket. Wilson nearly tripped and fell as he maneuvered to his right but regained his composure and was able to calmly loft a perfect pass to a wide open Jarvis Williams in the middle of the end zone.
During a three-year stretch where NC State had to nearly rebuild it's entire offensive line, Wilson came along at the perfect time. His elusiveness, desire and athleticism were the perfect fit for the Wolfpack offense. How appropriate was it that his final pass was the exact play that has defined his career at NC State?
1. The Embrace
A Gatorade bath and an embrace between LB Nate Irving and head coach Tom O'Brien at the conclusion of the Champs Sports Bowl punctuated the Wolfpack's 2010 season. After a car wreck nearly took his life, there was Irving hugging the coach that had seen him through the highs and lows of the last four years. Irving's comeback was impressive.
As important as Russell Wilson was to the offense, Irving was equally crucial to the defense. Seeing him there for the final time and going out as a winner seemed appropriate for a player that had faced so much adversity. It was equally important for O'Brien. His comeback story may not have been as dramatic but it was certainly remarkable. Three consecutive losing seasons can take a toll but give O'Brien credit. There were no short cuts. Many of the major players on this year's team were lightly regarded coming out of high school.
However, in typical Marine fashion, O'Brien stuck with his plan and followed the blue print that has served him well in the past. The reward was a nine win season and a foundation for the future.