Strength Against Strength

The Champs Sports Bowl may, once and for all, answer that age old question of what would happen if an unstoppable force were to be met by an immovable object.

When North Carolina State and WVU get together in Orlando for the Dec. 28 match-up, it will likely be a battle decided between the Mountaineers' stout defense and the Wolfpack's potent offense.

It's been tough for just about everybody to move the football against West Virginia's defense in 2010.

The No. 22 Mountaineers (9-3) rank among the nation's elite in just about every major defensive category: total defense (No. 3, 251.33 yards per game allowed), scoring defense (No. 2, yielding 12.75 points per game), sacks (No. 3, 3.33 per contest), third down efficiency defense (No. 2, allowing conversions only 24.70 percent of the time) and first downs allowed (No. 2, 13.08 per game).

"My years at Boston College, we played against the same defense they've been playing," noted N.C. State head coach Tom O'Brien, who faced WVU's 3-3-5 stack scheme regularly when BC was still a member of the Big East Conference.

"It's always a challenge, because they have good defensive players and they have great defensive coaches."

But if there is any knock against the WVU defense, it is that it has not faced high-caliber offenses.

Only one Mountaineer regular season opponent was among even the top 50 offenses in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in terms of scoring (Maryland, which wound up No. 42 with an average of 30.67 points per game).

The story is similar in terms of total offense, as only a single West Virginia opponent wound up in the top 65 of the country in that category by regular season's end (Cincinnati, whose 417.33 yards per game was good enough for No. 32).

Indeed, of the 11 FBS opponents WVU faced in the regular season, seven were downright inept on offense, ranking 92nd or worse nationally in terms of total offense (from "best" to worst -- No. 92 LSU, No. 96 Connecticut, No. 102 Marshall, No. 103 South Florida, No. 106 Syracuse, No. 114 Rutgers and No. 118 UNLV).

Thus, while few would confuse N.C. State for, say, the explosive scoring machines at Auburn or Oregon, the Wolfpack will easily boast the most proficient offense the Mountaineers have lined up against in 2010.

O'Brien's club is 29th nationally in scoring offense (32.58 points per game) and 39th in total offense (406.67 yards per game).

North Carolina State (8-4) does almost all of its damage through the air with star quarterback Russell Wilson. The junior is the nation's No. 15 passer in terms of yardage, throwing for an average of 274.00 yards per outing. That helps make up for a rushing offense that is only 93rd in the country (125.00 yards per game).

Thus, the game could hang in the balance every time the Wolfpack offense steps onto the field to try to do something few teams have managed to accomplish against WVU -- score with regularity. No Mountaineer opponent has scored more than 21 points in a game, and West Virginia's is the only defense in the FBS that can make that claim.

"They say this may be the best bowl out there, because when you have Russell Wilson and you have our defense ... it's very simple," WVU head coach Bill Stewart said. "It's offensive fireworks versus the toughest defense in the country."

If Stewart's squad could take solace in any of N.C. State's statistics, it is that Wilson has thrown at least one interception in each of his last nine games, including three contests that saw the signal-caller toss multiple picks.

That's one key reason why the Wolfpack, for all their lofty offensive numbers, ranks only 87th in the country in red zone offense, scoring on only 78 percent of their drives inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

But almost all of the other numbers indicate West Virginia may be in for its most stern test of the season as a defense in trying to stop Wilson and his receivers. That may be the defining battle of the Champs Sports Bowl, and it's a theme the event's organizers have already latched onto.

"Here's the deal: you take an explosive offense like these guys have and a defense like we have and it just provides an interesting match-up," Stewart said succinctly.

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