Note: We didn't have enough room to print this article in its entirety in the first issue of Pack Pride, so we saved the good stuff for this special online edition. By the way, the PS2 research team's simulation of the Richmond game turned out to be a 63-0 Wolfpack victory, so these guys seem to know what they're doing.
Sept. 18, Ohio StateJust as the memory of last year's 44-38 triple-overtime heartbreaker in Columbus is still fresh in the minds of every returning Wolfpack player, you can bet that revenge will be a strong motivator for the team when the Buckeyes come to Raleigh this year. OSU will be young and untested in 2004, after losing a total 14 starters in the off-season, including stars like Craig Krenzel, Michael Jenkins, Will Smith and Chris Gamble. But don't let that fool you, especially since there are plenty of young guns ready to step up for the Buckeyes.
The running game is solid, with Lydell Ross returning at tailback and several other speedsters waiting in the wings, but a rebuilt offensive line will have to prove itself capable of maintaining the run as the offense's primary strength. Santonio Holmes leads a young but talented receiving corps that will make new quarterback Justin Zwick look good on several occasions. The team's defensive front is also in a rebuilding stage, but the Buckeyes will have a strong nucleus of linebackers led by All-American candidate A.J. Hawk and Air Force Transfer Anthony Schlegel.
Special teams play is also expected to be a strength, with Holmes and possibly true-freshman Ted Ginn returning kicks. Keep an eye on Ginn, as he is one of the most talented prospects in this year's freshman class. Field goals will be automatic with senior Mike Nugent returning to do the placekicking. While this Buckeye team lacks the superstar quality that has made it a dominant program in recent years, it remains capable of having an impact on the national title picture.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: DaJuan Morgan. Think he's a little ticked that the Buckeye's yanked his scholarship offer last year? Look for the freshman to get some meaningful reps and make some big plays.
PS2 Simulation: Ohio State 24 NC State 10. The Buckeye ground game gets rolling early, as Ross and Maurice Hall score touchdowns running off tackle. The Wolfpack offense is stymied time and time again. This was a tough one to stomach.
Sept. 25, at Virginia TechIf you're looking for an early opportunity for a quality road win, this is it. This year's Virginia Tech team will be young, but talented. Sound familiar? Several true and redshirt freshmen will be playing key roles for the Hokies. In fact, State fans will probably get a good look at running back George Bell, a North Carolina native who spurned the Wolfpack to sign with Beamer last season. A strong back with tremendous skills, Bell will be given several opportunities at tailback behind projected starter Cedric Humes and backup Mike Imoh, who may be back from a three-game suspension for this contest.
Quarterback Ryan Randle will maintain the leadership of this club, and the Pack will have to be prepared for multiple offensive sets that utilize the senior's playmaking abilities. Freshman receivers Justin Harper, Josh Hyman and Josh Morgan will be receiving loads of playing time also. The offensive line has holes to fill, but the defensive line has plenty of experience, as well as the Tech secondary. The linebacker position also has its share of seasoned veterans, but there are plenty of underclassmen waiting to make their mark at that position, including freshman Vince Hall.
Anything can happen with this team, but it will be up to the Pack's defensive unit to prove it can adjust on the road. And you can bet Frank Beamer will have the Hokies ready to make a statement in their new conference.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Stephen Tulloch. It will be up to the Pack's linebackers to contain Randle, but Tulloch just might decapitate him when he scrambles across the line of scrimmage.
PS2 Simulation: Virginia Tech 27 NC State 17. The alternating combination of Randall and Vick at QB catches the Wolfpack D off guard, but it is the Hokies' ground game (behind an impressive performance by the offensive line) that wins this one for Tech. Humes shakes off some post-injury rust to score two touchdowns.
Oct. 2, Wake Forest
The Deacons caught the Pack off guard last year, handing State a humiliating 38-24 loss Winston-Salem. But now, State will be looking for a little revenge. Jim Grobe lost several key starters from last season's 5-7 team, but he is counting on a number of sophomores and redshirt freshmen to step up this season.
With 1,000-yard rusher Chris Barclay, the Deacs return a key component of the ACC's leading ground attack, which averaged just over 200 yards per game. Junior quarterback Cory Randolph emerged last year as a solid leader and playmaker, but he will be pushed this year by redshirt freshman Ben Mauk. Receivers Jason Anderson and Willie Idlette return, but the Deacs have some critical holes to fill on the left side of the line. Freshman Zac Selmon will get the nod at tight end.
The Deacs' strength on defense is at linebacker, where seniors Brad White and Caron Bracy return to shore up a more traditional style of formation. Six other starters return on the defensive side of the ball, but Grobe will need to get more production out of his front four if Wake has a shot at holding off the ACC's big guns. Look for the Deacon defense to be the X-factor in this one: if White, Bracy and company can keep the Pack offense under wraps, Grobe's option attack can give Wake a shot at stealing another win.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Reggie Herring. The new DC will make sure the Pack defense doesn't look as lost as it was last year against the Deacs.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 42 Wake Forest 17. The Wolfpack lets out some frustration on the Deacs, as Jay Davis solidifies his starting position with four touchdowns. Even big games by Barclay and nose tackle Goryal Scales go unnoticed in this blowout.
Oct. 9, at UNC-Chapel Hill
The Tar Heels always play their toughest against State, and this year will be no exception, especially with this being a make-or-break season for head coach John Bunting. Expect another spirited effort from this team as they aim for a quality conference win.
Darian Durant leads a potent passing attack, with plenty of able receivers in Jarwarski Pollack, Derrele Mitchell, Adarius Bowman and Mike Mason. However, the lack of a solid ground game may very well play into the hands of a speedy Wolfpack defense. Durant is still the favorite to lead the team in rushing.
Bunting brought in a couple of veteran coaches in John Gutekunst and Marvin Sanders to improve a defense that ranked nearly dead last among Division I schools in several categories. The front seven has talent with sophomore Isaiah "Puff" Thomas and freshman Khalif Mitchell up front and linebackers Fred Sparkman and Larry Edwards ready to emerge, but it will take time for the young players to mature and gel as a unit. The secondary will need to get tougher with senior Lionel Green the only returning starter. Freshman Connor Barth is slated to handle the kicking duties, but even the best freshman kickers have rough first seasons.
Bottom line: Tar Heel fans may need to wait another year or two for this team to start producing. Of course, that won't be soon enough to save Bunting. Look for plenty of offense to make this game interesting.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Darrell Blackman. At Hargrave Military Academy last year, Blackman torched the UNC junior varsity for two long touchdowns and a boatload of yards in limited action. The UNC varsity shouldn't be much different.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 38 UNC-Chapel Hill 27. The Tar Heels put up a good fight behind the pass-catch combination of Durant and Pollack, but Tramain Hall comes up big again with over 200 yards of total offense. Blackman also makes some noise with a couple of flashy touchdown runs.
Oct. 16, at Maryland
It's no secret that Chuck Amato wants this game really bad. The Terrapins have never lost to an Amato-coached Wolfpack team, and head coach Ralph Friedgen is eager to continue his winning streak over the Pack.
The Terps return several veterans along the offensive line, including All-American candidate C.J. Brooks. But breaking in a new starter at quarterback (sophomore Joel Statham) will be a top priority for Friedgen. Of course, Statham will have plenty of weapons at his disposal with playmakers Steve Suter and Derrick Fenner returning. Expect tailbacks Josh Allen and Sammy Maldonado to get most of the touches on offense.
The defense lost eight starters in the off-season, but the unit will be surprisingly strong. The linebacking corps will again be headed by All-ACC performer D'Qwell Jackson, and the front line features fast ends in Shawne Merriman and Kevin Eli. Cornerback Domonique Foxworth is one of the best at his position, and several key reserves from last year return to shore up the secondary. The key will be how well sophomore tackles Rob Armstrong and Conrad Bolston can stuff the run.
Special teams will be another strength for this team with All-ACC selections Nick Novak and Adam Podlesh returning to handle the kicking duties and Suter ready to terrorize on returns. But this game will ultimately come down to the Pack's ability to execute on offense, especially in the running game.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: LeRue Rumph. The freshman linebacker will be looking to make his mark on special teams this year, and it may just come against Maryland. He has outstanding quickness and he really likes to hit people, so Suter better be weary.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 70 Maryland 34. The Pack opens up a can of you-know-what, with Davis, Stone, McLendon, Blackman, Hall, and Richard Washington all getting into the act. Friedgen is so frustrated; he eats his clipboard. (Not really, but he did come close.)
Oct. 23, Miami
The last time the Hurricanes came to Carter-Finley, they lost miserably. Of course that was against East Carolina in 1999 after Hurricane Floyd forced the game's relocation from Greenville, but the stadium may harbor enough bad karma for Miami that the Pack might be able to take advantage. Of course, it doesn't seem to matter how many players the Canes lose to the NFL, because they always reload from their endless pool of talent. But this 2004 version may lack the superstar quality that has made it a staple at the top of the polls for the past several years.
After a relatively disappointing season, quarterback Brock Berlin returns to take charge of an offense that sputtered at key times last year. He has a veteran (although erratic) line, which includes All-American candidate Eric Winston at left tackle, and quite a few aerial targets, including Ryan Moore and Roscoe Parish. If Berlin fades again like he did last year, head coach Larry Coker may turn to redshirt freshman Kyle Wright to run the team. One player to watch is sophomore tailback Tyrone Moss, who has already taken advantage of Frank Gore's slow recovery from knee injuries to make a name for himself in the Hurricane backfield.
Defense will be a major question mark for this team, especially in the secondary where there is little depth behind the backfield's only returning starter, Antrel Rolle. If freshman Willie Williams returns from injury in time, he will probably see a great deal of playing time at linebacker, where the NFL has drained the depth of that position as well. If anything were solid on that side of the ball, it would be the line, where tackle Orien Harris and end Baraka Atkins return to fortify the front perimeter.
A great deal of hype continues to surround this game, and it will be grand opportunity for the Wolfpack to prove itself in the new ACC. This is the type of game in which NC State has traditionally made a solid if not spectacular showing. Can they do it again?
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Bobby Washington. See DaJuan Morgan above. The term "lightning-swift vengeance" comes to mind.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 58 Miami 42. Who says the Wolfpack offense can't get along without Phillip Rivers? The usual stars come out firing, and State wins their fourth in a row. The researchers couldn't figure out how to tear down the goal posts after the game, so they did their own celebration by breaking down the PlayStation2. It also took them a while to put it back together again for the next game.
Oct. 30, at Clemson
When Wolfpack fans think of Clemson, the image of last year's 17-15 win at Carter-Finley comes quickly to mind. However, that was a completely different Tiger team than the one that finished the season crushing foes like Florida State, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Charlie Whitehurst is perhaps the ACC's most celebrated quarterback, now that Phillip Rivers has left for the NFL. The junior has plenty of reasons to have an MVP-type season, including a veteran offensive line and a stable full of speedy receivers. Look for some deep bombs on occasion to senior Airese Currie. The Tigers also have their own version of "Thunder & Lightning" in running backs Yusef Kelly and Duane Coleman (if he can return from injury in time).
The defense may be one of the ACC's best units, with a lock-down secondary led by corners Justin Miller and Tye Hill. The Pack (and other ACC opponents) will work hard to avoid linebacker Leroy Hill, who is clearly one of the most tenacious defenders in the conference. The only weak link may be up front, where three starters must be replaced.
Tommy Bowden isn't going anywhere soon, and there has been a lot of buzz surrounding this program recently. This is a very dangerous game for the Wolfpack, considering the fact that it follows a tough match-up against Miami. The Pack must contain Whitehurst at all costs. Otherwise, it could be a long trip home from Death Valley.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Marcus Hudson. Probably the Pack's best coverage back, Hudson will lock down on the Clemson receivers so well, Whitehurst will have to do a lot of scrambling.
PS2 Simulation: Clemson 34 NC State 30. Whitehurst gives the Wolfpack a rude awakening, putting up over 400 yards of total offense. Leroy Hill makes some spectacular plays for the Clemson D, but the biggest was a game-ending interception by Miller. How many times has this happened to the Pack the week after a big victory?
Nov. 6, Georgia Tech
The Yellow Jackets have been a relative surprise over the past couple of years under the guidance of Chan Gailey. They even surprised the Wolfpack with a 29-21 win in Atlanta a year ago. But now, because of a serious lack of depth, Gailey must keep this team healthy if it is to reach the potential it flashed several times last season.
The Tech offense appears to be in solid shape with the return of flashy sophomore quarterback Reggie Ball and former walk-on J.P. Daniels, who led the ACC in rushing last year with 1,447 yards on only 283 carries. Ball is the kind of rollout quarterback that has troubled the Wolfpack defenses over the years, and he has several weapons at his disposal, including senior wideout Nate Curry. Also, keep an eye on freshman receiver Calvin Johnson, who will certainly have an immediate impact in the big-play department.
Plenty of experience returns at both lines, but again, depth is a concern. The defensive unit was one of the ACC's youngest and yet most successful in terms of stopping the run last year. This season, they are paced by junior ends Eric Henderson and Travis Parker. Although middleman Gerris Wilkinson returns, the linebacker position overall appears to be the unit's weakness. There is plenty of talent in the secondary with corners Reuben Houston and Kenny Scott, and safeties Dawan Landry and James Butler, but depth concerns are apparent there also.
This could be one of Gailey's best projects, but it is also a few key injuries away from an early disaster. Regardless, the Wolfpack will have its hands full when Tech comes to town. This will be a good test to see where the Pack defense stands in terms of development.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Tramain Hall. Hall is still ticked about the touchdown he nearly scored that could've changed last year's outcome. He'll be even more determined to take advantage of his opportunities this time around.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 31 Georgia Tech 28. The Wolfpack is able to hold Daniels to under 100 yards, but Ball continues to wreak havoc on the Pack D. If not for a late interception by Jimmie Sutton, this game might have gone the other way.
Nov. 11, Florida State
Every season, it seems the matchups between the Pack and the Seminoles get increasingly intense, and this one should be no different. Chris Rix returns to take another shot at controlling one of the ACC's most potent offenses, and he should have plenty of chances with nearly everyone else returning on the offensive side of the ball. The running game will miss bruiser Greg Jones but with speedier backs like Lorenzo Booker and Leon Washington, look for Rix to throw to the ball to the backs more often.
The Seminoles' offensive line will provide the Pack defensive front with their toughest task all season. Led by All-ACC tackles Alex Barron and Ray Willis, this unit has the size, talent and experience to give Rix plenty of time in the pocket and open up more holes for the running backs.
The main question mark for Bobby Bowden's club is the defensive front seven, which must replace everyone but defensive end Eric Moore. However, look for more physical play from the linebacking corps of A.J. Nicholson and Buster Davis. The secondary looks solid with a lineup of seniors across the board, and the kicking game is also in good shape with senior Xavier Beitia.
Bobby Bowden knows this is developing into a serious rivalry, and he will pull out all the stops to make sure he doesn't lose in Raleigh for the third time in the past seven years. Of course, it all may come down to how Rix runs the show.
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: John Deraney. Since this game may eventually come down to special teams, it will be up to Deraney to keep the ball out of the hands of the Noles' talented kick returners.
PS2 Simulation: Florida State 35 NC State 21. Rix takes advantage of the injuries to the Wolfpack secondary and lights up the home team for five touchdowns. Linebacker Ernie Sims made a key goal line stop on T.A. McLendon late in the game.
Nov. 27, East Carolina (in Charlotte)
If there is one game the Pirates have circled on their schedule, you can bet it's this one. ECU has traditionally been a tough opponent for the Wolfpack, and even though the Pirates finished 1-11 last season, head coach John Thompson will have his crew ready for this out-of-conference matchup.
In the offseason, Thompson hired former Washington Redskins quarterback coach Noah Brindise to take over as offensive coordinator, and the former Steve Spurrier disciple quickly installed a version of the "Fun ‘n' Gun" attack into the ECU system. Sophomore James Pinkney was the first to pick up the new system, making him the starter at quarterback for the 2004 season. It is likely that Pinkney will thrive in the new system with tailback Art Brown returning from an injury redshirt to shore up the running game. With Brown back in the lineup, last year's rushing leader, Marvin Townes, could be moved to wideout to bolster a young receiving unit. If the offensive line meshes, the Pirates should easily double their offensive output from last season.
Replacements are needed up front on defense, but the linebacker position looks strong with All-Conference USA selection Chris Moore in the middle and senior Ike Emodi on the strong side. The Pirate secondary has been particularly weak the past couple of seasons, but that should change with senior Donald Whitehead and fast-rising Erode Jean manning the corners. Of course, when your team struggles, it's always good to have a good punter in the lineup, and the Pirates have a dandy in sophomore Ryan Dougherty, who averaged nearly 45 yards per punt last season.
Thompson has made some good moves to put the ECU program back on the road to respectability. However, that road will be a long one. This game will be a wild one, given the history of the rivalry, but if the Wolfpack's season turns out to be less than stellar, you can bet the seniors will pull out their best plays and heaviest hits for one last "Hoo-Rah!"
Wolfpack Secret Weapon: Manny Lawson. Since the Pirates will be particularly preoccupied with keeping Mario Williams from crushing Pinkney, they may forget about Lawson at the other end. Expect a few sacks and maybe even a couple of blocked punts from the "Freak" at the weak side.
PS2 Simulation: NC State 27 East Carolina 26. Pinkney starts out slowly, but eventually brings the Pirates back from a 17-point second-half deficit. A couple of late sacks by Mario Williams puts the ice on the comeback attempt, however, and as the game ends, our tired researchers quickly gear up for a Continental Tire Bowl matchup with Kent State. Of course, State caps an 8-4 season by thrashing the Golden Flashes 45-14 behind a beautiful offensive performance by Marcus Stone. And the research team celebrates again by destroying the PlayStation2.
Final Note: Many thanks to the research team of Frank Dalton and Scott Souffrant, who put in several hours on the NCAA Football 2005. Now they can get back to living normal lives… we hope.