Schedule Preview: N.C. State

North Carolina ends the 2009 regular season against local rival N.C. State in Raleigh on Nov. 28. The Tar Heels have won five of the last seven contests against the Wolfpack at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Overview: Tom O'Brien enters his third season as N.C. State's head football coach looking for his first winning record in Raleigh, and there's little doubt that 2009 will provide him with that opportunity. Back-to-back late rallies could not overcome early-season miscues and a variety of injuries in '07 and '08, but with first-team All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson back and three O'Brien hand-picked recruiting classes in tow, the Wolfpack have the tools in place to contend for the ACC Atlantic Division crown.

Wilson (150-of-275 passing, 1,955 yards, 17 TD, INT) was superb during his red-shirt freshman season despite working through a Grade 3 concussion in the early part of the season. The Wolfpack offense struggled in the games that Wilson was sidelined (South Carolina, William & Mary, South Florida, 2nd half vs. Rutgers), but offensive coordinator Dana Bible is hopeful that red-shirt freshman Mike Glennon will live up to his hype and be a more suitable backup than Harrison Beck (34-of-80, 592 yards, 2 TD, 7 INT) or Daniel Evans (13-of-35, 131 yards, TD, 5 INT). N.C. State's offense ranked 88th nationally in total offense (329.2 yards per game) and 80th in scoring offense (23.5 ppg), but averaged 30 points per outing over the final five.

Running back Andre Brown (767 yards, 7 TD) will be missed, but senior Jamelle Eugene (442 yards, 2 TD) has proven himself as a capable replacement. Former five-star tailback Toney Baker is also back after missing the past two seasons to injury, and junior Curtis Underwood and red-shirt freshman Brandon Barnes are expected to battle for playing time. Owen Spencer (31 catches, 691 yards, 5 TD), Jarvis Williams (26 catches, 432 yards, 4 TD) and T.J. Graham (16 catches, 251 yards) return to give Wilson's legitimate options at wide receiver, while the offensive line returns three starters and adequate depth to improve on ‘08's statistics. Donald Bowens missed the '08 season due to injury, after leading the team with 41 receptions and 598 yards in '07, and his return has yet to be determined.

The Wolfpack defense held down the cellar spot in the ACC last fall in total defense (390.9 ypg, 83rd nationally), scoring defense (26.3, 65th) and pass defense (248.7 ypg, 96th). Thanks to Wilson's efficiency with the football, N.C. State's turnover margin was actually top-25 nationally at plus-0.62, despite the defense ranking in the middle of the ACC with 28 takeaways. Junior Nate Irving (80 tackles, 10 tfl) is a game-changer at linebacker, and the quicker he can return from a summer car wreck, the better.

Senior defensive linemen Shea McKeen (32 tkl, 2.5 sacks), Willie Young (58 tkl, 6.5 sacks) and Alan Michael-Cash (38 tkl, 3.5 sacks) provide talent along the front line, but without Irving, the back seven has serious issues that must be addressed. The summer transfer of expected starting cornerback Dominique Ellis (11 tkl) doesn't help a secondary that allowed 20 passing touchdowns and 7.23 yards per attempt in ‘08. Getting safety Javon Walker back from a knee injury would help patch the holes.

The Pack defense showed signs of improvement in late-season victories over Wake Forest and North Carolina, although it helped that neither of those two programs ranked in the top-90 nationally in total offense. Miami and Rutgers combined for 828 offensive yards in NCSU's final two games of the season.

The Wilson Equation: Sure, the 17 touchdowns to just one interception is a staggering statistic, but even more impressive was Wilson's ability to make everyone around him better. With the 5-foot-11, 208-pounder on the field, N.C. State outscored its opponents 255-220 in '09. But with the versatile signal caller on the sidelines, the Wolfpack was outscored 98-16 against FBS opposition.

Hoping for a Speedy Recovery: There was little debate that Nate Irving would be a frontrunner for All-ACC first-team honors this fall – after all, his '08 statistics fall short in explaining the level of his impact to Mike Archer's defense. NCSU was effective with Irving on the field, but porous with him on the sidelines. This season's expectations of increased defensive production took a serious hit on June 28, following Irving's one-car wreck that resulted in a fractured leg and a collapsed lung. During the Triangle Pigskin Preview on July 23, O'Brien indicated that more in-depth information about Irving's return will not be available until mid-August.

Key Game: South Carolina on Sept. 3. The Wolfpack stumbled out of the gates last fall with an embarrassing 34-0 loss to the Gamecocks on national television. O'Brien's squad should be vastly improved in '09, but South Carolina may be headed in the opposite direction – Spurrier's fifth edition in Columbia returns just 11 starters and figures to dwell near the bottom of the SEC standings. Win this one and the schedule lays out perfectly for N.C. State. Two FCS opponents (Murray St., Gardner-Webb) and three ACC programs expected to finish near the bottom of their respective divisions (Wake Forest, Duke, Boston College) await the Wolfpack before the Oct. 24 open date, leaving Big East contender Pittsburgh as the biggest threat standing between NCSU and a 7-0 start.

2009 Schedule
Sept. 3   South Carolina 
Sept. 12  Murray State
Sept. 19  Gardner-Webb
Sept. 26  Pittsburgh
Oct. 3    @ Wake Forest
Oct. 10   Duke
Oct. 17   @ Boston College
Oct. 31   @ Florida State
Nov. 7    Maryland
Nov. 14   Clemson
Nov. 21   @ Virginia Tech
Nov. 28   North Carolina  

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