Saturday, September 3, 2011
6:00 pm (EST), ESPN3
Here's The Deal
The Wolfpack will open the 2011 season with one goal in mind, putting the Russell Wilson ordeal in the rear view mirror. While Wilson was a major part of the offense the past few seasons, it isn't as if he is irreplaceable, as most of the media has led you to believe during the offseason. Regardless of whether Wilson returned or not, coach Tom O'Brien was determined to plant a strong running game into the offense, as was his mojo during his tenure at Boston College. Entering his fourth season with the program, QB Mike Glennon is hardly a stranger with the program. Patience is a virtue as he has waited his turn and now wants to prove that he can be the guy to lead the troops to a second consecutive bowl game.
Eight starters return from a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally in sacks while cracking the top 30 in scoring D. For the fifth consecutive season, the Liberty Flames are the preseason favorite to win the Big South Championship. Among the 17 returning starters are four preseason All-Americans. Head coach Danny Rocco has been brilliant in his time at Liberty, reflected by his gaudy 19-2 conference record.
Why Liberty Might Win: Every small school in the country believes it can defeat a BCS opponent after the shocking upset of Michigan at the hands of Appalachian State in 2007. Liberty has won or held a share of its conference title each of the past four seasons to establish itself as a yearly power in the Big South.
Rocco has laid an incredible foundation, which includes a conference-record 12-game home winning streak. QB Mike Brown is an offensive star who passed for nearly 3,000 yards in 2010.
Why NC State Might Win: This is the role that O'Brien tends to embrace. With the loss of Wilson at QB, many haven't given much thought to State as a contender. However, the Pack has the components to challenge for a respectable bowl game in 2011. One of the biggest priorities is to enhance the run game, which will almost certainly be a priority in the opener against a lower tier opponent.
The passing game will go as far as the productivity of the ground game will allow it, and a tune up in the first week should allow NC State to ease in the new era of Glennon under center. Across the board, the Pack outmatches Liberty in depth and talent, so execution will be the key to victory.
What To Watch Out For: NC State LB Terrell Manning is ready for the spotlight and to become the leader of an improving defense. Flashes of excellence were shown in 2010, in which he closed the season on a tear with huge games against Clemson and North Carolina. The loss of star Nate Irving will sting, so it is critical that Manning take control of the unit early in order to keep the cohesiveness together as the season progresses.
Audie Cole will move from his previous strong side position to the middle to fill void of Irving. Both Cole and Manning will look to get off to fast starts to garner the media attention that eluded both a year ago.
What Will Happen: Although Liberty has done well under Danny Rocco, it has yet to qualify for the playoffs during his tenure, making NC State a major step up in weight class. The Pack running game will be too much for Liberty, allowing Glennon to stretch the field through play-action for big gainers. Liberty's Brown will cause some issues for the Pack defense, but it will not be significant enough to cause worry.
CFN Prediction: NC State 40 ... Liberty 13
NC State-Liberty: 5 Questions
But that doesn't mean we can't learn something, or at least get some ideas about which areas should be ongoing concerns and which are in good position going forward. Here's five questions that might be answered, at least partially, by the final whistle on Saturday.
1. How comfortable will Mike Glennon look in the pocket?
The coaching staff knows what they have with Glennon, but to the fans he remains mostly a mystery. But this question isn't just about Glennon, it's about the entire offensive line as well. Russell Wilson had the ability to create plays with his feet while Glennon will be much more of a traditional pocket passer, so offensive line will have to give him time to throw. If the Liberty rush is able to get to Glennon or create problems for him in the pocket, that's not a good sign going forward.
As for Glennon, it will be interesting to see how he performs in his first start. Will he get happy feet or hold the ball too long? Ideally he looks comfortable and confident in the pocket and makes his throws. This isn't so much about his final results as it is demeanor and his ability to move the chains consistently for this team against an inferior opponent.
2. Can this offense run the ball effectively?
It's easy to forget just how much trouble the Pack had moving the ball on the ground last year – but the team ranked 95th nationally with 3.44 yards per carry. Only Mustafa Greene was an effective runner for the Pack, and he's sidelined until at least mid-October. James Washington will start on Saturday but expect plenty of Curtis Underwood and Tony Creecy as well. But again this is a question for the offensive line as much as for the running backs. You want to see the line dominate up front and open gaping holes for the running backs. The Pack only averaged 3.6 yards per carry against its FCS foe in 2010, and you would like to see that number much higher on Saturday.
3. How will the freshman kickers respond to their first game?
Niklas Sade and Wil Baumann are under an extraordinary amount of pressure for 18-year-olds. Sade, the Pack's new placekicker, and Baumann, the new punter, are both true freshmen who have been thrust into starting roles because the Pack literally has no other options. Both were highly-rated high school prospects at their position so they both have the talent and both have performed well if the scrimmage stats being released are to be believed. But there is no way to know how these two kids will react the first time they have 50,000 people watching what they do on the field. Let's hope the answer is well.
4. Who stands out at wide receiver?
Of all the questions on this list, this one is probably the least likely to be answered on Saturday. Last year against Western Carolina the Pack threw to 11 different receivers and T.J. Graham led the team in receiving. Graham accounted for nearly a third of his total 2010 receiving yards in that single game, so his performance was not some precursor to a breakout year.
Yet it will still be interesting to see where the ball goes against Liberty. Does Graham become the de facto No. 1 receiver or will someone like Jay Smith, Steven Howard or Tobias Palmer see a high number of passes thrown their way. Pay close attention to any third down passing play to see where Glennon feels most confident throwing the ball (though I suspect the answer to that question isn't a wide receiver but his All-ACC tight end).
5. Can this defense be even better than it was in 2010?
While everyone acknowledges how improved the NC State defense was in 2010, I'm not sure that we all completely appreciate just how good they were as a whole. Just take a second to glance at these rankings – 7th nationally in 3rd down conversions; 14th in rushing defense; 27th in turnover margin. They were somewhat overshadowed because the ACC contained so many good defenses last season (or, one could argue, so many terrible offenses) that it was hard for NC State's squad to really stand out. But make no mistake - the defense did more to win games last year than the offense.
So the question is can they repeat, or even build on, last year's success? Last season's opener against Western Carolina is probably a fair measuring stick. The Pack gave up 189 yards and seven points, with 87 of those yards coming on the opening drive for the Catamounts.
NC State Game Notes
NC State has never faced Liberty on the gridiron and Tom O'Brien has never faced the Flames during his tenure as a head coach. Liberty has won four straight Big South titles, the first program in the history of that league to do so. The Wolfpack posts an 83-31-4 overall mark in season openers.
STUDY IN CONTRASTS
The 2011 version of the Wolfpack is a study in contrasts heading into the season opener with Liberty. Although 14 starters return for the squad that finished last season ranked in the top 25 and tallied nine wins, head coach Tom O'Brien must replace players in key positions like quarterback, punter, placekicker and both starting wideout spots.
A new offense has not been implemented, but with a new quarterback and wide receivers, different components of that offense will undoubtedly be on display.
On the flip side, however, the Wolfpack boasts more experience at key positions than in previous years. The offensive line has seven returnees who have started games in the past (counting Andrew Wallace, who won't return from injury until midseason). The defensive secondary has gone from a unit with virtually no experience two seasons ago to one of the most seasoned groups on the team, with 65 starts between the potential starters.
WE LIKE MIKE
It will be easy to spot the starting quarterback on the red team when the Wolfpack takes the field for the season opener versus Liberty. At 6'6 (he claims he's really 6'7), signal caller Mike Glennon stands tall against the competition and is actually tied as the second-tallest QB in the nation heading into 2011.
The redshirt junior (who is already an NC State graduate with a business administration degree with two years of eligibility remaining) is only a hair taller than when he arrived on campus, but has definitely bulked up his large frame (he wears a size 14 shoe), gaining 30 pounds.
NC State is one of 22 FBS teams to have a quarterback making his first career start as the season opens. Glennon has played in 10 games during his two years behind All-ACC signal caller Russell Wilson, but has been in for just 100 career snaps. Despite his lack of experience, he was named to the preseason ‘watch' list for the Maxwell Award. He was ranked the No. 3 quarterback in the nation by ESPN coming out of high school and was the Gatorade and AP Player of the Year in Virginia. His older brother, Sean, played quarterback at Virginia Tech from 2004- 08.
MOVING TO THE MIDDLE
Linebacker Nate Irving was the Wolfpack's biggest playmaker on defense last season, tallying 20.5 tackles for loss while playing middle linebacker for the first time in his career. Tying with Irving for the team-lead in total tackles (97), however, was strong-side linebacker Audie Cole, whose 10.5 tackles for loss ranked third on the squad.
Irving is now playing for the Denver Broncos and Cole is doing what Irving did a year ago - manning the middle linebacker spot. The fifth-year senior moved to the middle for spring drills and took to his new position with ease. That opened up his former weak-side spot for sophomore D.J. Green, who saw limited action at safety last year. With Terrell Manning returning as a starter on the weak side, the linebacking corps should be one of the strongest units on the team this year, despite losing such an impact player.
One reason that the linebacking corps promises to be big for the Pack in 2011 is because the linebackers are ... BIG! Since arriving on campus four years ago, Cole has packed on 50 pounds. Manning has gained 36 in three years and in just a year, Green is 17 pounds heavier.
Tight end George Bryan isn't one of the flashiest players in the ACC. He isn't even one of the flashiest players on his own team. But what he lacks in flash, he more than makes up for in production, as he has been one of the Wolfpack's biggest playmakers at tight end each of the past two years.
A preseason second-team All-America pick by Lindy's and a third-team choice by Rivals, Bryan is on the early ‘watch' list for the Mackey Award for the third straight year. For the third straight year, he's also hoping to earn first-team All-ACC honors and is the first tight end in school history to have won two such awards.
Bryan, who was selected as a team captain by his teammates prior to preseason camp, enters his senior campaign tied for ninth in school history with 13 career touchdown receptions, the highest mark among returning players. He currently ranks 17th in school history with 93 career receptions and with just six more grabs will have more career catches than any tight end in school history.
GREEN SPECIAL TEAMS
Tom O'Brien has been in coaching for a long time - 36 years to be exact. But this season, his team has something that he's never come across in almost four decades in the profession: true freshmen starters at placekicker, punter and long snapper.
Josh Czakowski, who started at placekicker each of the past three years, finished his career ranked in the top four in school history in career field goals made, field goals attempted and set the school record for PATs. His replacement for 2011, freshman Niklas Sade was listed as one of the top prep kickers in the nation last season.
At punter, true freshman Wil Baumann will man the post that was filled by two players last season, while true freshman Scott Thompson will handle the long snapping duties.
Although none of the three has ever seen action in a collegiate contest, they have all had impressive fall camps. Baumann averaged over 40 yards per punt in three scrimmages, while Sade hit 9 of his 11 field-goal attempts, including a 53-yarder. NC State is one of only two schools who are slated to start true freshmen at bot the punter and placekicker positions in 2011.
NO RUSHING BACK
When the 2011 campaign kicks off, the leading rusher from last season, Mustafa Greene, will be wearing a boot on his foot and sitting in the stands. The secondleading rusher, Russell Wilson, will be playing for another team. The third-leading rusher, Dean Haynes, should be suited up and ready to go, but will be playing on the other side of the ball at safety.
NC State's top returning rusher, at least for the early part of the season, will be junior halfback James Washington, who played in eight contests last season, rushing for 215 yards. Washington is one of only three returning players who gained yardage rushing the ball last season who return for 2011 (Curtis Underwood gained 63 yards and Mike Glennon gained 3). Washington averaged 54 yards over the last three games last season, starting the last four contests.
WIDEOUT WIDE OPEN
Throughout Tom O'Brien's tenure as a head coach, players from a variety of positions have populated the receiving stats. In 2010, the five team leaders in receiving yards were two wideouts, two halfbacks and a tight end.
Spreading the ball around will be beneficial to the Pack in 2011, as the top three wide receivers from last season have all completed their eligibility. The most experienced returnee at that spot is T.J. Graham, who has 10 career starts and 25 career catches to his credit, but just one start last year. Senior Jay Smith started a pair of contests last season and pulled in 10 catches, while senior Steven Howard has never earned a starting nod and had a dozen grabs a year ago.
Entering the 2010 campaign, returning wide receivers had tallied a combined 243 career catches and combined for 62 career starts. Pack wideouts returning for 2011 started a combined three contests last season (12 overall) and pulled in just 104 career catches.
O'BRIEN ON ELITE LIST
The win over West Virginia in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl was momentous for State football on several levels. First, the victory over the No. 23 Mountaineers gave the Pack nine wins for the season, which tied as the second-highest victory total in school history. Second, it moved the squad into the final AP poll. Third, it gave head coach Tom O'Brien his 100th career victory and moved him into 20th place among the winningest active coaches in the BCS ranks.
O'Brien enters his 15th season as a head coach with a record of 100-70. Ten of his 14 teams have advanced to postseason bowls.
Senior T.J. Graham has definitely made a name for himself at NC State with his heroics as a returner. He holds the single game (202), single season (1,028) and career (2,167) records for kickoff return yards. That career mark ranks fifth in ACC history. His 433 career punt return yards rank ninth on the career list for NC State and he ranks 12th in school history with 1,405 career all-purpose yards.
This year, Graham hopes that he also makes his mark on offense as well, as he could become a full-time starter at wide receiver for the first time in his career. Last season he caught 25 passes for 316 yards, tops among all returning wide receivers.
BACKFIELD IS BACK
Two years ago, the Wolfpack's defensive secondary might have been the youngest in the country. All four of the positions were manned by true or redshirt freshmen for the majority of the season, with Brandan Bishop, C.J. Wilson and Earl Wolff all getting their first cracks at playing time.
Heading into 2011, those three players are still around and are in their third seasons as starters. Add David Amerson, who started nine games at cornerback last season, and you've got 65 career starts between the projected starters in the defensive secondary.
PACK-ING THEM IN
Last season, 58,083 faithful fans packed into Carter-Finley Stadium for the Virginia Tech game - the third-highest attendance total in school history and the highest in 25 years. Because of unprecedented student demand for tickets, Director of Athletics Debbie Yow had 500 bleacher seats installed for added seats.
But big crowds during Tom O'Brien's tenure at NC State have become a tradition. Twelve of the top 25 attendance figures in the 45-year history of Carter-Finley Stadium have come since he took over the program prior to the 2007 campaign.
Although there were only six home games in 2010 for the Wolfpack faithful to attend, those fans came out in full force. Average attendance this season was 56,876, a new school record.
Liberty Game Notes
Just The Second Time
For just the second time in the six-year span Danny Rocco has been at the helm of Liberty's program will the Flames open the season on the road. The first and only other time was in 2009 when the Flames traveled to Morgantown, W.Va., and dropped a 33-20 decision to West Virginia on Sept. 5.
N.C. State start will become the 114th different program the Flames have squared off against on the gridiron when the two meet on Sept. 3 inside Carter-Finley Stadium. The Wolfpack is the only first-time opponent on Liberty's 2011 schedule.
Make It Two
N.C. State will be the second ACC opponent Liberty has faced in the 39-year history of the football program. In 2006, Danny Rocco took the Flames to Winston-Salem, N.C., to face his alma mater, Wake Forest, dropping a 34-14 decision on Sept. 30 inside Grove Stadium.
Back On Track
Liberty's 52-7 victory over St. Francis, Pa., to open the 2010 season get the Flames back on their season-opening winning ways, as a 33-20 setback to West Virginia snapped a five-game season-opening winning streak for Liberty. Overall, Liberty is 19-19 in season-opening games, a record that is bolstered by Liberty winning six of its last season-opening games.
Saturday Night Lights
Under head coach Danny Rocco, the Flames are 16-5 in night games. Since 1976, Liberty has compiled a 58-66-3 record in night games.
In Broad Daylight
Under head coach Danny Rocco, the Flames are 24-11 in games played during the day. Since 1976, Liberty is 126-119-1 in day games.
Natural Vs. Artificial Surfaces
Under head coach Danny Rocco, the Flames are 30-11 on artificial turf and 10-5 on natural grass. Overall, Liberty is 102-109-4 on natural grass and 90-79 on artificial turf. The Flames play their home games at Williams Stadium, which has an artificial surface, as new state-of-the-art FieldTurf was installed prior to the start of the 2006 season. Liberty has posted a 25-4 record at home since the new type of surface was installed.
The Flames enter today's game having posted a 3-5 record in overtime games. Liberty's last overtime game came on Sept. 15, 2007, when the Flames dropped a 48-41 decision to William & Mary in double overtime in Williamsburg, Va. Liberty has only played two of its eight overtime games away from Williams Stadium. Liberty's first extra-period game was a 34-28 road loss to Morgan State on Sept. 21, 1996. Liberty's last victory in an overtime contest came on Nov. 22, 2003, when it closed out the 2003 campaign with a 49-42 home win over Hofstra.
Back In The Big South
On Oct. 8, Liberty will travel to Boiling Springs, N.C., to face Gardner-Webb, officially kicking off the 2011 Big South Conference season. The contest will mark the beginning of the 10th season of Big South football, with Liberty having posted a 28-12 record in league games since 2002.
"The Quest Continues"
Liberty's theme in 2011, "The Quest Continues," has multiple means to the 90-plus members that have been chosen to don a Liberty uniform in 2011. This year's squad is looking to become the first to win five-straight Big South Conference titles, while becoming the first team in program history to earn Liberty a spot in the NCAA FCS Playoffs.
The Flames dropped their final road contest of 2010, falling 45-31 to Coastal Carolina on Nov. 13 to even Liberty's road slate at 3-3 last season. Since taking over the program, head coach Danny Rocco has placed a high priority about winning on the road, with the Flames posting a 14-12 in games away from Williams Stadium since 2006. During the six seasons prior to Rocco's arrival, Liberty posted a combined 4-30 record in road games to open the fourth decade of Liberty football.
Last FBS Foe Falls
The last time the Flames squared off against a FBS program was certainly one of the highlights from the 2010 season. Quarterback Mike Brown scored from one-yard out with just under five minute left, while Liberty made a last-minute defensive stand during the ensuing drive to secure a 27-23 victory over Ball State in Munice, Ind., Sept. 11, 2010. This marked the second time in program history Liberty has knocked off a FBS foe, with the first coming in a 25-24 decision over Eastern Michigan on Oct. 14, 1989.
Eight is Great
Liberty's resounding 54-28 victory over Stony Brook to close out the 2010 season helped secure the fourth-straight eight-win season for the program. The victory helped cap off the best four-year run in program history, giving last year's season class a 34-11 four-year record. Liberty posted 8-3 records in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and a program-best 10-2 record in 2009.
NC State Depth Chart
|2011 NC State Depth Chart|
Liberty Depth Chart
Thanks to NC State and Liberty Athletics for much of the information in this preview.