Football fans had been looking forward to this year's NC State vs. Ohio State football game all year. The script was perfectly set with elements of conflict, topics for debate, and rich subplots. The speed and fireworks of the ACC's fastest rising star, yes, the Wolfpack, would match up against the epitome of Big Ten smashmouth football, and coincidentally, defending national champion, the Buckeyes of Ohio State. Future vs. status quo; dark horse vs. champion; unstoppable force vs. immovable object; blah blah blah. ABC could have really done a nice video montage introducing the game.
But the great thing about sports, as opposed to hit romantic comedies, is that everything is so unpredictable. Compare this season to May's top movie rental, "Sweet Home Alabama." At the beginning of the year we just knew that Philip Rivers would ultimately end up with Reese "the ACC championship" Witherspoon, but that's not so obvious now. That floozy may very well run off old flame Florida State. We just don't know. Aren't sports great?
Of course, happy endings are much more popular. But Wake Forest seemed to have pretty much screwed that up by handing the Pack such a convincing loss so early. Now it's time for a story of redemption, a story of the down-but-not-out Pack picking itself up off the floor to claim ultimate glory. Or it can just be a story of one team playing football. Not every season can be a performance of "Remember the Titans," nor does it need to be to be worth following.
Maybe we can even boil this weekend's plot down to NC State throwing the ball a lot, and Ohio State running it a lot. Granted, NC State will have to run the ball at least well enough to total more rushing yards than penalty yards, unlike last week. Will the Pack be able to score against one of the most dominating defenses in college football? Will a Buckeye offense that couldn't muster a touchdown against San Diego State be able to muster one against a Pack unit that has already allowed one and a half opponents to muster a total of 58 points? You think you know, but you have no idea.
There were all sorts of rich subplots surrounding this matchup, and like the chance for NC State to rise into the top five in the polls with a victory, those rich subplots have also vanished. Maurice Clarett, last year's freshman leader in rushing yards, will not face off against T.A. McClendon, last year's freshman leader in touchdowns scored. Clarett was a big-time recruit, and McClendon was a small-town back with big-time numbers. Fans had enormous expectations for both players. Clarett was handed the starting tailback position as soon as he walked on campus, while McClendon was greeted with a cornerback ahead of him on depth chart. Clarett lied about the value of stolen goods to collect more insurance money, and McClendon slipped and busted his ass in the player's lounge. Thus ends one rich subplot.
Then there was the matchup of two Heisman hopefuls, ACC passing leader Philip Rivers showcased against last year's freshman leader in rushing yards, Maurice Clar... scratch one more rich subplot.
All the earlier hyped juicy storylines for this game may have flickered out a bit, but the game itself still stands to be a pretty compelling matchup. NC State still has proven it can still rack up yards in bunches, compiling 511 net yards in its 38-24 loss to Wake last week. The Pack's speed and youth on defense struggled against a fast and experienced Wake Forest squad, but perhaps this week will fair better against the Buckeyes' bulk. Ohio State still knows how to eek out wins, and has had little trouble running the ball without Clarett, amassing 262 total rushing yards against Washington and San Diego State. Last week NC State gave up 202 rushing yards to Wake Forest alone. Meanwhile, Ohio State's defense looks to be even stronger than last year, holding Washington to just seven rushing yards and San Diego State to only 28.
For all this talk about rushing, the game still could be won in the air. Rivers has put up great numbers, but star Buckeye cornerback Chris Gamble might be capable of completely neutralizing top Wolfpack wideout Jericho Cotchery. The Pack has plenty of other receivers capable of cutting loose for a big play, but Cotchery is still the most reliable option to move the chains, and if Gamble locks him down, Rivers could struggle, especially if a Chris Colmer-less offensive line is unable to buy him much time to throw.
This Saturday Ohio State may very well march all over NC State and grind out a frustrating win. The announcers will probably refer to NC State as "Carolina" or even "UNC." Or, perhaps T.A. will superglue his torn Patella tendon back together and run in from the bench to singlehandedly resurrect NC State's run game. Perhaps Philip Rivers will launch a victorious aerial assault that leaves the Buckeyes in shock and awe. You never know how the story might unfold.