Finale Could Set Tone For 2005 For Pack

While most are viewing the Wolfpack-Pirates matchup as the finale game in a disappointing 2004 season for both teams, NC State coach Chuck Amato and his staff hope to use it as a springboard to a successful 2005 campaign.

Give Wolfpack coach Chuck Amato some credit for remaining relatively upset despite a disappointing 2004 season that finds NC State at 4-6 overall and 3-5 in the ACC going into its finale against East Carolina today. In his first meeting with the media since the demoralizing 17-10 loss to Florida State on November 11, Amato was able to make a few jokes at his own expense Monday.

"We're playing in the Toilet Bowl five weeks from now, [so] we can practice," said Amato when asked about missing out on valuable practice time since the Pack isn't going bowling. "We got that sanctioned, so we can practice two more weeks after this. I haven't told the players that yet."

He also added more humor when he noted that the Pirates will be motivated by playing the final game under coach John Thompson, who has a 3-19 record in his two seasons in Greenville.

"I talked about all the intangibles of the seniors playing their last game, which we've got the same thing, and their last game for Coach Thompson," said Amato, before adding with a smile, "Hopefully, we don't have the same thing."

Amato quickly drew serious when talking about State's rivalry with ECU, however. He said that it "will be a bowl for both," and even compared the game favorably to the Wolfpack's annual matchup with the hated Tar Heels.

"It's a game that will be as intense -- or moreso -- than what the University of North Carolina is, and that's saying something," Amato said. "Because of the fact that it's not played every year. And the fact that if you go back to 1987 and take the last five games in this series, the record is 1-4 in their favor. Those people down there take this game very, very, very serious – no matter where it's played.

"We've got to be very careful because of the intensity of this game, to make sure that it's played when the ball snaps to the whistle, 100 miles an hour. Then go back to the huddle and we call a play and we do it again when the ball is snapped. It will be very intense for a lot of reasons."

Amato stopped short of saying the State-ECU contest should be played every year, however, even though one reporter suggested that many fans would be in favor of that scenario.

"It's something you'd have to think about," said Amato. "There are a lot of games that people look forward to. They don't always get what they want."

As far as the Wolfpack is concerned, it's clear that Amato has them approaching the game not as the finale to the 2004 campaign, but the first game of the 2004 season. He said how important it is to win this contest to snap a four-game losing streak, and even issued a thinly veiled warning to his players about how rigorous the offseason conditioning program would be should they fall to the Pirates and end this season on a five-game skid.

One media member wondered whether Amato and his coaching staff would play younger players to get their feet wet and evaluate them going into next season, especially since NC State won't have the bowl practices to work more intensively with players. Amato bristled at the suggestion, saying how important it was for the Pack to get back on the winning track.

State also wants to win for a senior class that meant so much to the program as Amato was laying the foundation in his formative years in his Raleigh. To tell Andre Maddox or Pat Thomas that they would be sitting in their final game so the Pack can evaluate Miguel Scott or LeRue Rumph, respectively, wouldn't be fair to the seniors.

"We have to put our best football players on the field, and if the [younger] ones can get in there, all well and good," Amato said.

There is still some intrigue surrounding the Wolfpack-Pirates game from an NC State perspective. How will the Pack handle the quarterback tandem of Jay Davis and Marcus Stone? Will they continue to rotate the signal-callers against the Pirates? Will tailback T.A. McLendon be well enough to handle the majority of the load or will State afford rookies Darrell Blackman and Bobby Washington more of an opportunity in the backfield? Center Jed Paulsen and guard Leroy Harris are both out, but will tackle Derek Morris be able to play and inject some life into the offensive line? Will wideout Richard Washington be able to return as the Wolfpack's top receiving threat? Will the 16-day layoff be long enough for offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone & Co. to find a way to jumpstart a lethargic offense? And has kicker/punter John Deraney been able to use the time away to fix any problems in his kicking motion?

While some feel McLendon could use a strong game against the Pirates as a showcase for NFL scouts in the hopes of turning pro early, that scenario is unlikely. A more interesting development to watch will be under center, where Davis and Stone will have to use every available snap and throw to try to show the Pack braintrust that they can be the No. 1 gun in 2005. That job competition is likely to be thrown wide open once again as soon as the final whistle blows, especially since it appears that Mazzone will have a different address next year.

As the last minutes of a staggeringly difficult season wind down, Amato is faced with perhaps his first crisis situation at the head of the Pack. For the first time, he's hearing criticism from multiple quarters for the team's lack of discipline this year. Missing a bowl for the first time in his five years as head man won't help recruiting efforts or preparation for next year, and it's likely that he'll be breaking in his fourth offensive coordinator for his sixth season in Raleigh in a matter of months.

Perhaps that's why Amato answered questions about the outgoing Thompson the way he did. While paying respect to the ousted coach on the other sideline, Amato hinted that he needs a win even more than Thompson – and his fiery demeanor showed through in the answer.

"I know his reputation, and I've talked to him a few times on the telephone and a few times in person at conventions and clinics," said Amato of Thompson. "And I really like him; he seems so intense and so fiery, and you see his kids play that way.

"But you know what? Come Saturday afternoon, I don't care how well I know him -- if he's my brother, I want to beat him. I want to beat him for this program, for this football team, for this community.

"I guess that's enough said."

And Wolfpack Nation will find out in a matter of hours what the final word of the 2004 season will be – and how the opening lines of the 2004 campaign could read.

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