ACC Football: N.C. State, South Carolina open season tonight
RALEIGH ó North Carolina State couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the season.
First, there’s the chance to showcase the program and all-conference quarterback Russell Wilson to a national TV audience. Then there’s the opponent: Steve Spurrier and South Carolina, the same team that shut out the Wolfpack to open last season.
“It’s the buzz around town right now, to be on television and know you’re the first game that everybody’s going to be watching,” Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien said of tonight. “It’s going to be a special treat … (and) going to be an indication of where we are as a program.”
That could be said for both teams. The Wolfpack have twice managed to overcome terrible starts to the season under O’Brien to get back into bowl contention, including last year’s four-game winning streak to end the year that put N.C. State in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
The Gamecocks, meanwhile, are starting their fifth season under Spurrier but are coming off a 7-6 finish that ended with three straight losses ó all by lopsided margins.
In last year’s meeting, the Gamecocks led just 3-0 at halftime before scoring on their last four possessions to take a 34-0 victory in Columbia. This time, the Wolfpack are favored.
“That definitely doesn’t bother me,” Spurrier said. “I’ve played as the underdog many times. I just want our players to know this is a very good team we’re playing. Sometimes people have a tendency to go by last year’s game when really you can’t. N.C. State became a much better team as the season progressed.”
Indeed, both teams headed in different directions following last year’s matchup. The Wolfpack lost four of six before rallying behind Wilson, who left the opener with a concussion but went on to become the first freshman voted all-ACC first-team quarterback.
With his mobility and mistake-free play ó he has gone a school-record 249 passes without throwing an interception ó he’s a tough matchup for any defense.
“It goes in one ear, comes out the other,” the sophomore said of all the preseason praise. “I’m not really worried about it. You just have to realize and be honest with yourself and get better every time you step on the field.”
While the Wolfpack surged through the final month of the season, the Gamecocks saw a 5-2 start disintegrate. The year ended with a 50-point loss to eventual national champion Florida, a 17-point loss at instate rival Clemson and a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl.
Spurrier plans to rely on Stephen Garcia at quarterback, saying the sophomore better understands the offense and is more comfortable going through his progressions instead of taking off when he feels pressure. But the ol’ ball coach who has built his reputation around the pass admits his team will have to improve its rushing attack, which ranked last in the Southeastern Conference (94 yards per game) last year.
Expected backfield starter Brian Maddox averaged just 17 yards rushing per game.
“We’re on a three-game losing streak right now and any time you’re on a losing streak, you want to snap that losing streak,” South Carolina receiver Moe Brown said. “We’re going in the season not really harping on the past. We’re trying to set a new era around here and a new way to play Gamecock football and obviously the first game is going to be a statement on how we want to do that.”