July 21, 2009
Part of the Doc's ACC Week.
Whenever I think of N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson, I always go back to his first steps on the college stage as a redshirt freshman, as the rather unlikely starter in the Wolfpack's season opener last year at South Carolina, which could not have gone more poorly:
N.C. State was so bad in that game, finishing 5-of-20 passing with four turnovers, 138 yards total offense and zero points, that it seemed entirely plausible the Wolfpack wouldn't find the end zone all season. After the 27-9 loss at Clemson in its ACC opener, in which the only State touchdown was an interception return by the defense on the first play of the game, it even seemed likely the Wolfpack wouldn't find the end zone all season.
Outside of their triumphant performance in the William & Mary game (with still included two interceptions), Daniel Evans and Harrison Beck collaborated for three scoring drives all season, despite taking a solid majority of the snaps against South Carolina, South Florida and in the bowl game against Rutgers, and part of the game against Clemson -- in which Beck replaced Wilson for one play in the first half and was intercepted for a Tiger touchdown. The Pack was four times less likely to score a touchdown with Beck or Evans as opposed to Wilson, and about eight times more likely to turn the ball over. If all 28 touchdown drives with Wilson on the field had ended in punts instead, he still would have been significantly more efficient than his colleagues with his eerie aversion to interceptions (1 in 275 attempts) alone.
The effects on the win-loss column, of course, were about as stark. Again discounting the William & Mary game, N.C. State started 1-3 with Wilson moving in and out of the lineup -- where the lone win, a 30-24 upset over East Carolina, was the only game Wilson played start to finish in September, and the worst loss by far, a 41-10 disaster against South Florida, was the only game he didn't play in at all -- only to finish 4-3 with Wilson starting the rest of the regular season, including a four-game winning streak in November to sneak into a bowl game.
There's no better petri dish for Wilson's effect on the offense than the bowl: At halftime, Wilson had led scoring drives of 81, 65 and 80 yards and the Wolfpack led Rutgers 17-6. After Wilson was knocked out of the game at the start of the second half, Evans and Beck combined for three interceptions and the Knights stormed back for a 29-23 win.
The fact is that by the end of the regular season, N.C. State had begun to roll on offense, and with blowouts over North Carolina and Miami and the big first half against Rutgers, was probably playing as well overall as any team in the ACC. And the ACC remains as wide open -- especially in the Atlantic Division -- as it was throughout last year, when the Pack finished just one game back in the division despite the late start. Wilson gets back three of his top four receivers, including downfield threat Owen Spencer, who led the ACC and was No. 3 nationally in yards per catch, along with four seniors on the offensive line.
It's understandable given the Pack's recent history and overall talent level why no one is willing to pull the trigger on a division title or take a flier on them in the top-25; that's just playing the odds. But as long as Wilson is healthy and functioning the defense doesn't fall flat on its face (and what offense in this league could exploit it if it did?), darkhorses don't come much better than this. But even with hyped redshirt freshman Mike Glennon expected to provide some respectability on the depth chart, the key in that equation is clearly keeping Wilson upright.