Wetzell: Version 2002 as good as advertised

Brett Wetzell dares to soak in the excitement surrounding Saturday's performance

Version 2002 as Good as Advertised
Fans Grapple with Newfound Swagger

Despite all the questions facing the Pack this year, an undeniable optimism permeated fans' anticipation of football season. Saturday's game justified this positivity, as NC State soundly outplayed New Mexico while displaying capabilities that surpassed the already high expectations of fans.

This offseason State unexpectedly lost its defensive coordinator and projected starting tailback, and questions hovered about the ability of the revamped offensive line and how the defense would recover from key personnel losses. But fans' excitement never faded into concern. Legions of Wolfpack faithful arrived well before noon to brave record 98 degree heat and swirling thunderstorms, eager for kickoff. Once things got started, the Pack showed us a team that looks to indeed "Step Up."

Putting the Game Away
Most impressive about this victory was the convincing nature of it. In Chuck Amato's first two seasons he transformed NC State to a team that defeats the opponents its supposed to, something that wasn't a given under O'Cain. However, Chuck's third year promises to be the transition to the kind of program that doesn't allow outmatched competition to even threaten defeat. Many of us expected State to win, but only the most brazen supporters predicted the authority with which it would do so.

Make no mistake, New Mexico is a better team than previous opening opponents Indiana or Arkansas State. And those games were won much less easily. Critics will mock our excitement over this game, but to fans who have supported a program fraught with inconsistency over the years, the strong victory represents a potential stepping stone to a new level of success.

After the game someone asked New Mexico coach Rocky Long if he thought his team was outmatched. He said no, responding defiantly "Are you saying we were manhandled?" Physically, New Mexico's starters were hardly that much smaller or slower than State's. New Mexico has Texas as its recruiting backyard, after all. The Lobos were more inexperienced, though, and coupled with the playing conditions, the difference-maker was the Pack's "quality depth," which Amato has preached about obtaining since his arrival. Well, maybe that was only part of the difference. Philip Rivers had a pretty good game, too.

Rivers Reveals Versatility
State's star quarterback built a reputation for himself over the past two years as an intelligent leader with deadly accuracy. However, along with the departure of Koren Robinson prior to last season, State's lack of dominance on the field led to Rivers being overlooked nationally as one of college football's elite quarterbacks. Regular watchers were fully aware of his talent, but rarely had we ever seen the audacity and abilities he displayed this weekend.

Never mind the stats, Rivers looked more like Brett Favre than the steady pocket passer he's known to be. Even with an admirable performance by the offensive line, New Mexico's nonstop blitzing afforded Rivers several opportunities to improvise, which was when he was at his best. Some of the offense's biggest gains came with Rivers scrambling and shedding defenders, buying just enough time to hurl the ball downfield before his legs fell from under him. Additionally, Rivers picked up several key first downs by decisively tucking the ball and charging ahead as though he were Olin Hannum reincarnate.

Rivers' numbers were certainly aided by Marty Galbraith's aggressive play calling. As opposed to what seemed like a hesitancy last year to go for the long pass, Galbraith opened things up against a tough defense. If not for some heavy first-game rust, State's receivers could have had at least three more touchdowns on the day.

Ground Game Convinces
An offensive line made up of converted defensive ends and unproven talent pushed back last year's fifth-best rushing defense while fighting pressure all day. NC State rushed for 134 yards against a defense that gave up only 87 per game in 2001. Even more remarkably, the line did not give up one sack in the game.

Everyone expected the receiving corps to be a team strength this year, but Greg Golden, T.A. McClendon and the bigger but younger offensive line proved NC State's backfield to be sound as well. Everyone's buzzing about the long runs McClendon made, showcasing his ability to power through tackles and burst away from pursuers. Yet Golden's performance was most astounding, considering he only made the switch from corner a few weeks ago, yet found holes and absorbed hits like no 190 lb. cornerback should. Watching him pick up blitzing linebackers and chop them down sure was something to see, as well. We didn't even really get to see former Gatorade North Carolina Player of the Year Josh Brown, who missed snaps because of a knee injury. With the emergence of this stable of backs, NC State's ground attack has a completely new dimension. Their youthfulness is even more exciting, ensuring the presence of a deep running game for several years to come.

Holt and Company Come Through
While the offense displayed a new explosiveness, the defense picked up from the loss of four big-name starters to shut out the Lobos in the first half and contain their powerful running game. So far the coordination by committee approach appears to work just fine. The secondary gave receivers little room all day, and turned what would have been pass deflections last year into interceptions, grabbing two for the day. New Mexico QB Casey Kelly and RB Quincy Wright showed flashes of their talent, but for the most part State capitalized on their inexperience to frustrate the Lobos' offense for the day.

So What Bowl Game Are We Going To?
Coach Amato has breathed optimism and confidence into the program, emotions many of us almost feel guilty about. Yep, its only one game, but fans are hoping it signifies a progression into the kind of program in which wins over unranked opponents are more expected than exciting.

Saturday, NC State held true to its pledge to "Step Up", as everyone from the freshmen to the coaches met the challenge of improving upon last year. While the effort was not without letdowns or errors, Amato has turned us into the kind of fans so confident in our team we that can proudly discount dropped passes, pentalties, or turnovers with the all-sweeping proclamation: "Without those mistakes, imagine how badly we would have beat them!"

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