(Courtesy of Dances with Wolves/Hollywood/Kevin Costner--I met him once and he autographed a baseball for my wife)
WHO: UC and North Carolina State
WHEN: Thursday, September 16th
KICKOFF: 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, NC
SERIES: This would be the first
LAST TIME: (see above)
This is one of those games that you like and don't like. You like it because your the Thursday night feature on ESPN and all of the world (that likes football) is watching.
You don't like it because you just played on Saturday and now you've got a quick turnaround with essentially two decent practice days to get ready for it.
Both teams are in the same boat and neither has a great advantage in terms of preparation time. NC State had a Saturday night game in Orlando against Central Florida (28-21 Wolfpack to go to 2-0) and arrived back in Raleigh sometime Sunday.
UC with an early game vs. Indiana State was able to rest a little Saturday and Sunday, but now must load up to head southeast of Mayberry Wednesday afternoon. (Raleigh is southeast of Mount Airy, NC, the hometown of Andy Griffith and the town the fictional "Mayberry" was based on--for those of you older and/or familiar with classic TV.)
In terms of local connections to this game, there are plenty. Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien has played UC before when he headed up Boston College. He also is a 1967 graduate of St. Xavier High School. His offensive coordinator, Dana Bible, played and coached at UC, then later coached with the Bengals before coming back to UC briefly on Rick Minter's first staff. Defensive line coach Keith Willis was also a Minter staffer in the '99 and '00 seasons and had a hand in sending former Bearcat Antwan Peek to the NFL.
Also, just as he did at BC, O'Brien recruits the Cincinnati area. Currently on the roster is freshman OL Andy Jomantas from Chaminade-Julienne out of Dayton; redshirt junior DE Jeff Rieskamp of Elder; and redshirt freshman TE Anthony Talbert of Winton Woods.
O'Brien led NC State to a 5-7 mark (2-6 ACC) last season and is out to improve on that early with a 2-0 start thus far. Meantime, Butch Jones notched his first UC win last week and is hoping the inspired play he saw in the third quarter vs. Indiana State carries over into Thursday's marquees match-up.
What happens when 'Cats and Wolves tangle?
UC OFFENSE VS. NC STATE DEFENSE
Well, the last game was one of the rare games in recent memory featuring substantially more rushing yards than passing yards. And, that all came WITHOUT Isaiah Pead who was nursing a swollen knee. Based on what we've seen so far and the hard-nosed toughness exhibited after a Butch Jones halftime motivation/demonstration, you have to feel the Bearcats will continue to make their presence known on the ground. While Pead will be back and is the more experienced runner lately, Darrin Williams proved his worth with117 yards vs. Indiana State and John Goebel showed he's no afterthought with 75. Even Zach Collaros was able to run more and frankly looks more comfortable doing so. That said, even with Vidal Hazelton gone, you can't discount the presence of Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. Plus, this may be the game Marcus Barnett gets overlooked by the defense and does some damage. Personally, I'm looking for Ben Guidugli to introduce himself to the offensive coaching staff as well.
Meantime, the Wolfpack defense hopes to repeat the results they had vs. UCF, forcing five turnovers as they flew out to a 21-0 lead. That lead was later 28-7, but UCF came back to lose by just a touchdown. Leading tackler LB Terrell Manning had a key fumble recovery and safety Earl Wolff a big INT to lead NC State. Audie Cole, a 6-5, 239-pound LB out of Monroe, Michigan is also a force to deal with as he's the second-leading tackler behind Manning and has tallied 3.5 TFL with a sac and a pick-off.
The offense that began early vs. Fresno State and played in the third quarter vs. Indiana State can score on most anybody. If NC State jumps out early on turnovers at home, the UC offense does not yet appear to have the confidence to overcome that.
NC STATE OFFENSE VS. UC DEFENSE
To counter some of the UC offensive woes, the defense has made it's presence known. Early on, you're used to hearing the names of Derek Wolfe, Maalik Bomar and JK Schaffer. Also, Walter Stewart has yet to have the game he's capable of. The upside of all of that is all four guys are returning next year. The Bearcat defense is extremely young with just three seniors (Collin McCafferty, Robby Armstrong and Obadiah Cheatham) all playing reserve roles. The downside, in big games like this, you need all the leadership you can find.
The Wolfpack offense is kind of a mixed bag as QB Russell Wilson threw for over 300 yards in their opening win vs. Western Carolina, but was held in check at 10-30 for just 105 yards at Central Florida. Obviously, defense put NC State in position to win there. Mustafa Greene, Dean Haynes and Wilson combined for 139 yards on the ground in that one. When they throw, Wilson has some tall targets in 6-4 WR Darnell Davis, 6-5 TE George Bryan and 6-4 WR Jarvis Williams. Here's hoping UC strength and conditioning coach Dave Lawson has improved the vertical leaps of UC's defensive backs.
It appears the Wolfpack attack can be disrupted if you're able to stop their three-headed ground game (Greene, Haynes and Wilson). Granted Wilson threw successfully vs. Western Carolina, but he probably should have career numbers in a game like that. Defensive practices have picked up in intensity since the Fresno State loss and I would expect that to carry over in this game.
Darrin Williams and D.J. Woods have successfully filled the need in the kick return game with Vidal Hazelton's season over. While there's no Mardy Gilyard, Williams has returned one back in his career and Woods is the closest in style and attitude to the former #1. Kicker Jake Rogers was good from 48 last week but needs to carry over that confidence to road games. Neil O'Donnell's punts aren't "Huber-like" in distance yet, but have plenty of hang time.
The Wolfpack's second leading kick return man is Raleigh native T.J. Graham. He's has a 100-yarder on his resume, so you definitely kick away from him if they send two guys back. Punter Jeff Ruiz averaged just 33.7 yards last week which won't help him with the Ray Guy Committee and kicker Josh Czajkowski kicked only extra points, but does get the edge in having a "cool kicker name".
I'd rate the return teams even. Give O'Donnell the punting edge and NC State's Czajkowski the kicking edge simply because it's his home field and he sounds like maybe he has some "feisty" relatives (The Battling Czajkowski's?).
SO WHAT THE HECK'S ALL THAT MEAN SCOTT?
Experience tells me it's too early to call this a "must win", especially since it's a non-conference game. However, you realistically have to look at the following week against Oklahoma (who obliterated Florida State of the ACC) and think that if you struggle with NC State, you're really going to have your hands full against the Sooners.
Oh yeah, and a 1-3 mark going into Big East play is not quite the way you'd draw up the season.
Again, it's tough to get a handle on this team.
Early against Fresno State, it looked like they hadn't missed a beat and maybe had accelerated things on defense. Then, from late in the second quarter through the end of the first half against Indiana State ,there were some puzzling moments.
If it's takes back-patting and mantras to get a team revved-up like they were in last Saturday's third quarter, I'm all for it. Whatever Coach Butch Jones came up with at halftime led to 28 quick and efficient points and it looked like the machine just needed an oil change and a sparkplug or two.
Assuming THAT attitude is carried over into Thursday, UC should be able to outplay the Wolfpack. The TV lights shouldn't be that distracting as UC's had the late night game in Fresno, plus the multitude of national games last year. Stage fright as this point is not a justifiable excuse.
While the game mathematically will have little to do with winning another Big East championship, it will have a LOT to do with how this team progresses toward that goal and is perceived nationally.