N.C. State Just Keeps Chugging Along
N.C. State has quietly minded its own business during this opening month of the college football season. That's not the case 20-plus miles to the northwest on I-40, where neighbors North Carolina and Duke -- separated by a kickoff, or a free throw, depending on the month -- have each generated plenty of news.
The Tar Heels, of course, have been in the middle of a firestorm since July as the NCAA and school continue their review into agent-related benefits and possible academic violations involving a tutor. At Duke, Saturday's showdown with No. 1 Alabama marks yet another milestone as the refurbished Blue Devils seek to elevate their program.
N.C. State, meanwhile, just keeps on winning -- just in case anyone hasn't noticed.
The Wolfpack beat Cincinnati 30-19 here Thursday night before a Carter-Finley Stadium crowd of 55,934 and national television audience on ESPN to improve to 3-0. The winning trifecta, however modest, may indicate better things are coming for head coach Tom O'Brien and State.
"I don't know what to say," said O'Brien, who was being realistic and should not to be confused with Gloomy Gus.
"Sometimes we looked real good, sometimes we looked real bad. The bottom line is we have a lot of work to do. I think we can be a better football team, but more importantly, I think our football team knows they can be better. The good thing is we didn't get shook up when we made mistakes."
Yet, there was a lot of shaking going on.
The Wolfpack totaled 491 total yards, quarterback Russell Wilson had 333 passing yards and three touchdowns and four of five scoring drives averaged 9.3 plays and 84.7 yards.
Not to be outdone, the ACC's top-rated defense, which surrendered 31.2 points per game a year ago, displayed toughness and versatility despite a late wobble. It registered five sacks and forced five fumbles, recovering one. State also blocked a punt to set up a score.
"Everyone is playing good, but at the end of the day we have to play better, we must play better," State linebacker Terrell Manning said.
Even so, think about it.
State is 3-0 for the first time since 2002 when it opened 9-0. The slightly favored Wolfpack, which was 4-17 as a home favorite during that time under O'Brien, also helped the beleaguered ACC save face -- be it the nose, but it's a start -- with a convincing non-conference win over the Big East Bearcats.
And, speaking of mascots, State unveiled another wolf-like Tamaskan dog at the game -- the school's second try this season before a home crowd to restore the tradition of fielding a live mascot. The first dog was unceremoniously fired following the season-opener against Western Carolina over a controversy about the quality of its kennel.
Which leads us to this predictable observation:
There are probably fans in The Queen City who believe their Bearcats (1-2) played like -- guess what? -- dogs against the Wolfpack. And, worse yet, they could be headed to their first losing season since 2005. That's certainly not what first-year head coach Butch Jones, who has been charged with continuing the success of a program that won back-to-back Big East championships, envisioned.
"It's inexcusable," Jones said.
"Our players have got to play better, our coaches have got to coach better, everything in our program. Nobody on this team is going to feel sorry for themselves. It's a long football season and we'll be back. We'll be working (Friday)."
Both State and Cincinnati were playing their third game in 13 days, much to the chagrin of O'Brien, who felt the ACC offered his team as a "sacrificial lamb."
State didn't play like one.
It was the Bearcats, who opened their season with a west coast trip and defeat to Fresno State, who looked sluggish and inept at times. They finished with 385 total yards -- 159 of it came on their final two scoring drives in the fourth quarter -- and registered three touchdown passes. However, the outbursts came way too late.
"We made some mistakes against a very good football team," Jones lamented. "There's a reason why they're ranked first in the ACC in total defense."
N.C. State jumped to an early 14-0 advantage thanks to a pair of 93-yard scoring drives. The Bearcats pulled to within 14-7 late in the second quarter, but the Wolfpack answered with another touchdown with 1:04 left before intermission. They continued their onslaught in the second half, opening up a 30-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
No surprisingly, Wilson led the charge, completing 28 of 40 passes and looking more and more comfortable after playing professional baseball over the summer. Against UCF last Saturday, Wilson threw for 105 yards with a touchdown, but he was sacked three times and registered the second-lowest completion percentage in his career.
"I don't think I have been really rusty," Wilson said.
"I just have been trying to get rhythm, continue to work one play at a time and I did that tonight a little better, I feel like. But at the same time, I still have a lot more work to do, a lot more completions out there and I have to keep working to get better every week."
While the Bearcats must regroup in a hurry -- they face No. 7 Oklahoma next weekend -- State has a challenge of its own at Georgia Tech. No wonder the Wolfpack is determined to remain under the radar and continue to focus on improving.
Let others -- even rivals a short drive up the interstate -- attract the attention and headlines.
"I've heard that (about first undefeated start since 2002), but I don't really pay attention to it -- the past is the past," Wilson said.
"We are trying to work on our team being successful, each game, each play, each practice. The best way to do that is to stick to one play at a time, one thing at a time and we're trying to do that this year."