Wilson's Injury Proves Costly for State

BIRMINGHAM, AL -- After carrying team to a 17-6 halftime lead, NC State quarterback Russell Wilson missed the rest of the game with a sprained knee and Rutgers would bounce back over the final 30 minutes to defeat the Wolfpack 29-23 in the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl.

Things didn't begin the way NC State would have liked and certainly didn't end that way either. On the first play of the game, tailback Jamelle Eugene took the handoff and picked up a nice gain but fumbled on the play, with Rutgers recovering at the 50-yard line. The Scarlet Knights marched down the field, but the drive stalled inside the 10. However, Rutgers, lining up for a field goal, ran a fake with defensive back Rod Cervini who shook a Wolfpack defender before leaping into the endzone for the touchdown. After a blocked extra point, Rutgers led 6-0 just minutes into the game.

The Pack would bounce right back behind quarterback Russell Wilson. The redshirt freshman led an 8-play 81-yard drive with the biggest play coming on 3rd and 11 at State's own 29-yard line. Wilson was flushed from the pocket and gained 12 yards on the scramble, securing the first down. State reached the endzone via the passing attack as Wilson rolled to his right and hit Owen Spencer on a deep crossing route for a 44-yard scoring strike. After the Josh Czajkowski extra point, NC State led 7-6.

State wasn't done in the opening quarter. On its next possession, Wilson and the Pack again drove down the field. Mixing in the run and the pass, Wilson had another nice run and passes to Jarvis Williams and Darrell Davis for 37 and 23 yards respectively. Facing 3rd and 3 at the 15 of Rutgers, Andre Brown dropped a swing pass and State had to settle for a field goal. The 33-yard kick from Czajkowski capped an 8-play, 65-yard drive that put State ahead 10-6 at the end of the quarter.

Both teams exchanged possessions and field position for much of the second quarter before Rutgers took over with great field position after a poor punt. Starting at NC State's 44-yard line, quarterback Mike Teel and Rutgers were able to move the ball again, with the big play coming on a 16-yard reverse to wideout Kenny Britt. However, after moving to the 13-yard line, the drive would stall as Pack defensive tackle Antoine Holmes forced an errant pass, bringing back on Rutgers kicker San San Te. Te, a freshman from Hickory, North Carolina, had an extra point blocked on the team's first possession and this time saw his 30-yard field goal attempt blocked by a Pack defender, keeping the score at 10-6 with the Wolfpack taking over at its own 13-yard line.

NC State would cash in on the big special teams play, and again it would be due to Wilson's ability to improvise and make plays. With just under five minutes remaining, Wilson led a 13-play, 80-yard drive that concluded with an Andre Brown 5-yard touchdown run with 38 seconds remaining. Wilson rushed for 39 yards on the drive, including a 16-yard scamper two plays prior to Brown's scoring run.

Despite holding a 17-6 halftime lead, the Pack suffered a big loss on the drive. On his final run, Wilson was hit from behind and landed awkwardly on his right knee. He completed the drive, but after leaving early for the locker room, Wilson was ruled out for the rest of the game after being diagnosed with a sprained knee.

"I don't know exactly what [Wilson's injury] is," NC State head coach Tom O'Brien said. "The doctor recommended he didn't play, so he didn't play."

"I'm okay, I'm fine," said Wilson. "We were talking about it, and the doctors thought it was the best decision for me to sit it out."

"There's no politicking when the doctor recommends you don't play," added O'Brien. "He was disappointed, but it wouldn't have done him any good anyway. I told him, 'The doctor said you're not playing, you're not playing."

Junior Harrison Beck would take over, but all the momentum State had shifted to Rutgers in the third quarter. With the ball to start the second half, the Scarlet Knights covered 58 yards on 11 plays before Te came on to kick a 31-yard field goal that cut the deficit to eight at 17-9. On Beck's first possession at quarterback, the Wolfpack was forced to go 3-and-out, and Bradley Pierson's punt was blocked by the Scarlet Knights. Three plays later Teel hit Underwood for a 10-yard touchdown pass and just like that the Pack's double-digit halftime lead was cut to a point, 17-16.

State's defense would make a big play later in the quarter as Clem Johnson came up with an interception, but just two snaps later Beck would throw a pass in the endzone that was picked off by linebacker Hugh D'Imperio and Beck's night was done. With him at quarterback, the Pack totaled just five yards in the third quarter, and senior Daniel Evans would get his chance in the fourth.

He would have to try and do it coming from behind, as the Scarlet Knights took Beck's interception and moved swiftly down the field, but the Pack defense stiffened again and forced another field goal that gave Rutgers a 19-17 lead with just under 14 minutes remaining in the game.

Evans, a redshirt senior who started for two years before losing the job this year, would come in and make plays. On his first drive, Evans completed two passes on third down that kept the drive alive before finding Anthony Hill open for a 17-yard touchdown pass with nine minutes left that put the Pack back out front at 23-19. After an unsuccessful two-point conversion attempt, State had regained some of the momentum it had lost when Wilson went down.

"I thought [Daniel Evans] did an excellent job coming in an adverse situation,' said O'Brien.

State's lead didn't last long. Rutgers, who entered the game with one of the hottest offenses in the country, scored two play later on a 42-yard play-action pass from Teel to Kenny Britt. The top receiver in school history, Britt set the Big East yardage record with the reception. The two-play, 65-yard drive put Rutges up for good at 26-23.

Now trailing by three, NC State go the ball back but Evans tossed an interception and after forcing another Te field goal the Pack had the ball back with less than a minute left down by six points. After a completion to Anthony Hill, Evans would toss his second interception of the game, and it sealed the deal for the Scarlet Knights.

NC State never recovered from the loss of Wilson. Through two quarters, he had accounted for 232 of the Pack's 269 yards. With him out of the game, the Pack totaled just 94 yards in the second half. However, O'Brien believed his team had its chances to win the game.

"You can't blame it on injuries," he said. "We had our opportunities in the third quarter and couldn't seem to make a play. If we make a play here or there, we have a chance to win the football game."

With the loss NC State fell to 6-7 on the season, the Pack's third straight losing season. Rutgers won its third consecutive bowl game and seventh straight game to conclude the 2008 season.

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