After all, N.C. State wrapped up its school-best 11-3 season with impressive wins over Florida State (17-7) in the regular season finale and Notre Dame (28-6) in the Gator Bowl.
But N.C. State's impending visit to Ohio State Saturday (noon, ABC split-national with Arkansas-Texas) lost some of its luster this past weekend when the Wolfpack dropped a 38-24 decision at ACC rival Wake Forest. N.C. State fell behind the upstart Demon Deacons 28-3 in that game.
"Our guys know they lost the last game, so now we have to go and win the next game," said N.C. State's colorful head coach Chuck Amato. "We don't care who it is. In this case, it's the defending national champions at Ohio State, where they have the longest winning streak in the country. Let's go."
Amato, speaking Monday afternoon, said he was very impressed with the Buckeyes.
"They are a typical Ohio State team," Amato said. "I bet you Woody Hayes is looking down on Coach Tressel and that football team and saying, `That a boy. That's the way to win a national championship.' You pound ‘em and pound ‘em, stop them on defense and have a great kicking game. Then you come back and pound ‘em again.
"They are huge up front. Their running backs are good. Plus, you have the threat of play action. They have to big wide receivers and the (Chris) Gamble kid is really something."
Amato praised Craig Krenzel for his play at quarterback.
"He is a winner," Amato said. "He makes things happen at uncanny times in the game. Their team believes in him as much as we believe in Philip Rivers."
The N.C. State coach also likes OSU's strong defensive front.
"They have three of their four starters back on the defensive line," he said. "That's where football games are won, in the line up front. If you can control the line of scrimmage, you can do about anything you want behind it on either side of the ball."
At the same time, Amato believes his team will be able to bounce back.
"Our kids are resilient," he said. "If they had all walked out after the game and been happy, then I would have been concerned. But tears were shed in the locker room. We're going to be fine. We'll show up.
"The loss was a blow. But our team is confident -- they're not going to stop being confident. One game doesn't make a season."
Rivers Leads The Way
N.C. State (1-1), which opened with a resounding 59-20 win over Division I-AA Western Carolina, will still provide a stiff test. The Wolfpack is led by senior quarterback Philip Rivers, considered one of the nation's top passers.
The 6-5, 236-pound Rivers is nearing the 10,000-yard mark in his college career. He completed 38 of 49 passes for a career-high 433 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions.
"When you're down 28-3, you've got to do something to put points on the board," Amato said. "We thought our best weapon would be No. 17."
Rivers, in his fourth year as a starter, moved passed Jamie Barnette to become N.C. State's career passing leader with 9,746 yards. He has thrown 67 career touchdown passes against just 29 interceptions.
Rivers throws for a high completion percentage (nearly 80 percent) with a ball-control passing game.
"He is off to a pretty good start," Amato said. "He is the man. He is the guy who makes this team go. He loves to shoulder it. Without (tailback) T.A. (McLendon) in the lineup last week, we threw it all on his shoulders. If you look at the people involved with the big award at the end of the year, his start is as good as anybody's. If he continues at this same pace, he might deserve it. And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.
"He works the pocket as good as anybody. Sometimes, he acts like a running back. He knows where everybody is on the field. He's something."
The tailback situation is a bit murky for the Wolfpack. Sophomore T.A. McLendon (5-11, 215) burst on the scene last year and was the ACC's Rookie of the Year. He rushed for 1,101 yards and scored 18 touchdowns. McLendon then opened this year with 69 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries against Western Carolina.
But on the Wednesday before the Wake Forest game, McLendon suffered a freak knee injury in the players' lounge. He strained a tendon in his knee, ruling him out of the Wake game. In his place, backup fullback Cotra Johnson (5-11, 220) started at tailback. But he netted just 24 yards on 12 carries. Jackson did catch a 22-yard TD pass from Rivers, however.
Rivers has a plethora of talented receivers to throw to, led by senior flanker Jerricho Cotchery (6-1, 200). He made 67 catches for 1,192 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago. He burned Wake Forest for nine catches, 173 yards and a touchdown this past week.
Cotchery is joined in the receiving corps by a pair of players who should be familiar to OSU fans. Sophomores Tramain Hall and Richard Washington contemplated playing at Ohio State at various points in their careers. Hall prepped at Huber Heights (Ohio) Wayne for one year. When he failed to qualify, he attended a California junior college for a year. Twice, he took visits to OSU before settling on N.C. State.
Washington was even closer to being a Buckeye, verbaling with OSU two winters ago before switching to N.C. State on or about signing day. He missed last season as a Prop 48.
Hall made a big splash in his N.C. State debut, returning a punt for a touchdown and catching a Rivers pass for a score against Western Carolina.
"I had tears in my eyes in the tunnel before the game and tears in my eyes when I scored," said Hall after his circuitous route led him to glory in Raleigh.
Washington, meanwhile, who wants his nickname to be "ROY" for Rookie of the Year, had nine catches for 85 yards and a touchdown against Wake Forest.
Junior Sterling Hicks (6-2, 182) is also a key receiver for the Wolfpack, while sophomore John Ritcher (6-2, 236) mans the tight end spot.
The offensive line is in a state of flux with All-ACC pick Chris Colmer, the left tackle, missing the first two games due to a nerve problem in his arm. Center Jed Paulsen (6-1, 290) and right tackle Sean Locklear (6-4, 286) also return from last year. Locklear was actually ticketed to play right guard again after highly touted freshman and former OSU signee Derek Morris won the right tackle job in the spring.
But when Morris, listed at 6-6, 358 pounds, showed up for preseason camp overweight, he was banished to the bench. Morris has not played in the first two games. His whole scenario is worth a story in and of itself. Touted as one of the nation's top line prospects, he signed with OSU in February 2002. He picked the Buckeyes over Georgia and several other powerful schools.
But as concerns about his academic status as well as rumors he and/or his family had received extra benefits -- the NCAA is investigating, according to Morris -- OSU granted him his release. Although Morris has been outspoken about wanting a chance to play against the Buckeyes, it remains unclear whether N.C. State is holding him out due to injury or the NCAA probe.
The Wolfpack welcomed back four starters on a defense that was tops in the ACC overall (300.8 yards per game), first against the pass and second against the run. Those numbers were of little solace, though, as the Wolfpack surrendered 375 yards total offense (202 rushing behind a strong option game and 173 passing) last week.
"We are so young on defense, but we're not as far away as it may seem," Amato said. "But we're not where we were last year, when we were playing five seniors on the defensive line."
N.C. State is young up front, where true freshman Mario Williams (6-7, 254), a prep All-American from nearby Richlands, N.C., is the key name. Williams visited OSU last fall before picking N.C. State. Backup defensive tackle DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler (6-3, 308) also looked at OSU last year as well. Nose tackle John Cargo (6-2, 290) is a redshirt freshman.
"We are playing with a bunch of freshmen up front," Amato said. "That's what we have. They're our guys. But we're getting better."
Weakside linebacker Pat Thomas (6-2, 224) is the only returnee in the linebacker corps. Three players rotate at the other two spots -- Manny Lawson (6-5, 216), Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (6-1, 224) and Oliver Hoyte (6-3, 230).
Two starters return from last year in the secondary: Rover back (strong safety) Andre Maddox (6-1, 191) and cornerback Lamont Reid (6-0, 185). They are joined by corner Greg Golden (5-11, 185) and free safety Troy Graham (6-3, 193).
Punter Austin Herbert averaged 38 yards against Wake Forest. Senior Adam Kiker, a former walk-on, is the place kicker. He made 13 field goals in 2001 before an injury led Herbert to take over the kicking duties as well last year.
* This will be the first meeting ever between Ohio State and N.C. State. It is part of a two-year contract that will send OSU to Raleigh next year (Sept. 18). That will mark OSU's first game ever at an ACC venue and first game ever in the state of North Carolina.
OSU is 7-6 all-time against current ACC teams. Ohio State last faced an ACC team in the 1998 Sugar Bowl, falling to Florida State 31-14. OSU also dropped games to FSU in 1981 and ‘82 in Columbus. The Buckeyes lost to Clemson in the 1978 Gator Bowl. OSU is 3-1 all-time against Duke and North Carolina with all of those games in Columbus. OSU also defeated Virginia in 1933 in Columbus. After this meeting, the only ACC teams OSU will not have faced are Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest.
* Amato and the N.C. State athletic administration did not want to schedule the Wake Forest game for last weekend. They wanted two full weeks to prepare for Ohio State. But the ACC, citing other scheduling concerns, placed the game there anyway.
"We had a chance to play the defending national champion and a team that we knew could be ranked No. 1," NCSU athletic director Lee Fowler told the Raleigh News Observer. "We wanted to give our team the best opportunity to win the game, and we wanted the extra time to prepare. It was a friendly request. We weren't mad about it. We know it's tough, scheduling nine teams.
"We didn't mind asking. We wanted to give our team the best opportunity to play well at Ohio State," he said.
* Amato is in his fourth year as the Wolfpack coach. He lettered three seasons as a linebacker for N.C. State (1965-67) before later serving seven years as an assistant there. He spent two years as an assistant at Arizona State before joining Bobby Bowden's staff at Florida State in 1982. He served as the defensive line coach until 1996, when he took over the linebackers. He was Bowden's right hand man as the assistant head coach from 1986-99.
A native of Easton, Pa., Amato has been a part of 11 ACC championship teams -- one as a player (1965), two as an N.C. State assistant (1973, 1979) and eight straight years as an assistant at FSU (1992-99).
He coached a number of top players at FSU, including Peter Boulware, Andre Wadsworth, Sam Cowart and Reinhard Wilson.
* This will mark just the third time since the advent of The Associated Press poll in 1936 that OSU will host two ranked non-conference teams in the same season. It also happened in 1980 (beat Arizona State, lost to UCLA) and 1995 (beat Washington and Notre Dame).
* OSU has won 33 straight non-conference home games, including six straight against ranked non-conference opponents. Both strings date to a 1990 loss to then-No. 18 USC. Wins over ranked non-conference teams since then include No. 12 Washington (1993), the two games in 1995, No. 21 Missouri (1998), No. 14 UCLA (1999) and the Washington game earlier this year.
* A year ago, N.C. State opened the season 9-0 and ranked as high as eighth. But three straight losses to Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia denied the Wolfpack an ACC championship.