The Wolfpack (4-7, 1-6 ACC) enter Saturday's season finale as a six-point underdog on Senior Day. Tom O'Brien's third squad in Raleigh was the preseason dark horse to win the Atlantic Division, and September provided plenty of fuel to the fire with three wins against a four-point loss to South Carolina. But after a tough 30-24 loss to Wake Forest to start October, the proverbial wheels fell off Mike Archer's defense.
The Wolfpack's next three opponents averaged 48.7 points per game, essentially ending any postseason hopes after an offseason full of promise. O'Brien has pointed to a rash of injuries in detailing the defensive issues, but while the injury report lists 13 players out for the season, only five of those players reside on the defensive side of the ball. But N.C. State can soothe a lot of its bumps and bruises with a third-consecutive victory over North Carolina on Saturday.
"It's a NFL defense." – O'Brien on UNC
"I'm not into too much trash talk until I get on the field. I heard some things and some of their players saying, ‘It's Carolina,' and all kinds of stuff. But I think Carolina this year has been playing pretty well. So whatever they say is cool and everything, but I want this year bad." – UNC safety Deunta Williams on N.C. State's coaches and players talking smack after last season's victory
While all of his recruiting class teammates will have exhausted their eligibility before the start of the 2010 season, former five-star tailback Toney Baker will have option to suit up for a sixth year in N.C. State red. The No. 1 high school prospect in the state of North Carolina back in 2005, Baker was granted an extra year last week by the NCAA.
The Jamestown, N.C. native led the Wolfpack in rushing as a sophomore with 688 yards and entered '07 as O'Brien's starter at running back. But a first quarter knee injury in the season opener against Central Florida required surgery to repair articular cartilage damage. Baker then faced the unenviable task of having additional surgery to his right knee in the fall of 2008 and missed his second consecutive season.
It's difficult enough for a player to come back after missing one season due to a knee injury, but doing it after two years of rehab on one knee is practically unheard of, which is why Baker is one of the few bright spots for N.C. State this season – the senior is the program's leading rusher with 664 yards and six touchdowns and has pulled in 24 receptions for 306 yards and three touchdowns.
Baker hasn't announced whether he will return in '10 or not. The 5-foot-10, 225-pounder is set to graduate in December with a degree in Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management.
"We're not going to do anything until after the season," O'Brien said last week. "We'll sit down and talk about it. We'll see where he wants to go."
Baker serves as a prime example for why certain coaches, like UNC's Butch Davis, are more willing than others to play true freshmen. If Baker had taken a voluntary red-shirt in '05, he would not be eligible for a sixth year in accordance with NCAA rules and regulations.
Matchups to Watch
N.C. State's Russell Wilson vs. UNC's Defense
North Carolina fans are likely growing tired of hearing Russell Wilson's name. First, it was the former head coach John Bunting's botched job in recruiting Wilson, followed by the red-shirt freshman's 17-of-28 passing display en route to 329 total offensive yards and two touchdowns in last season's blowout 41-10 victory over North Carolina.
On paper, Wilson's statistics have taken a step backward from his first-team All-ACC season in '08, as the Richmond, Va. native has only managed to complete 204 of his 351 passes for 2,768 yards and 27 touchdowns with 11 interceptions, to go along with 276 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
"He's one of the most dynamic players in this entire conference," Davis said. "He is a double-edge threat from the standpoint that he can extend plays [and] he throws the ball extremely well. His mobility just gives everybody fits."
The Wolfpack received devastating news on Monday when the school announced that offensive coordinator Dana Bible had been diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. The long-time O'Brien right-hand man will undergo medical treatment for the next month at UNC Hospitals, leaving the play-calling duties to be done by committee, according to the third-year N.C. State head coach. With their offensive coordinator on their minds, the Wolfpack will be riding an emotional high on Senior Day.
N.C. State ranks fourth in the ACC in total offense (399.2 ypg) and fifth in scoring offense (30.6 ppg), thanks in large part to Wilson's play-making ability. A plethora of conference blowouts has helped skew NCSU's rushing (125.0 ypg, 9th ACC) and sacks allowed (2.7, 100th nationally) totals southward, putting even more pressure on Wilson to carry a program seriously lacking talent in key areas.
The 5-foot-11, 200-pound quarterback will likely encounter his toughest challenge of the season on Saturday, as North Carolina brings the league's top unit in scoring defense (15.9 ppg), total defense (261.6 ypg) and run defense (94.4 ypg). UNC has scored six defensive touchdowns in '09, including four in the last two games.
Fourteen Tar Heel defenders have been credited with a turnover this season. Defensive end Robert Quinn, who leads the ACC with 17.5 tackles for loss and ranks second with 11.0 sacks, has also forced five fumbles.
"[Quinn's] got a quick first step and that's where he gets his," O'Brien said. "And he's got good power."
One key statistic to watch on Saturday – the Tar Heel defense has forced 22 turnovers in its last six games, while Wilson has thrown nine interceptions against 13 touchdowns during that same stretch.
UNC's T.J. Yates vs. N.C. State's Secondary
Despite directing his squad to an 8-3 (4-3 ACC) record this fall, quarterback T.J. Yates has struggled throughout the course of his red-shirt junior year, completing 182-of-304 pass attempts for 1,673 yards, 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. While the Marietta, Ga. has only credited his teammates all season long, there were plenty of excuses readily available in the first half of the schedule with numerous injuries on the offensive side of the ball.
But the Tar Heels have managed to adapt and overcome that adversity, which makes it even more difficult to understand why Yates' play has not followed along. After a solid opening scoring drive against Boston College last Saturday, UNC's third-year signal caller completed 19 of his 30 passes for 133 yards and three interceptions.
"For all quarterbacks, one thing that you're always talking to them about is efficiency – making good choices [and] making good decisions," Davis said. "For the most part, T.J. has done that all season long. When he's had a bad play, he's been able to move on past that. Winning the game last week certainly helps your ability to move on."
N.C. State's young secondary has also been battered and abused throughout '09. Two defensive backs -- Dominique Ellis and Jimmaul Simmons – left the program in the offseason, while true freshman Rashard Smith showed flashes of potential before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Archer was also apparently counting on safety Javon Walker's return, who has now missed two consecutive seasons to a knee injury.
The result is a secondary starting three freshmen and a senior that ranks 93rd nationally in pass efficiency defense (138.53) and is the primary culprit behind N.C. State's putrid scoring defense (31.6 ppg, 100th nationally). It should help that the Wolfpack start four seniors along the defensive line that boast a combined 12.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss on the season, but the connection is lacking.
O'Brien is feeling better about his defense' performances in recent weeks, though, giving Pack fans reason for optimism on Saturday.
"I sat here for weeks saying that we've got to grow up and that we've got to get some experience, so we're finally starting to see things a little better and making those plays we have to make," O'Brien said during his Monday press conference.