Ken Martin/The Wolfpacker
Can NC State continue the good times when it hosts No. 17 Louisville Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium?
The Wolfpacker editors Matt Carter and Jacey Zembal offer their predictions on how the game will turn out:
Each morning, The Wolfpacker receives a report on the previous day's website traffic. If that is any indicator, excitement levels have picked up among the Wolfpack faithful. With that probably comes nervous anticipation. This is the first time since the final poll in 2010 that NC State has been ranked.
That squad was underrated in the annals of Wolfpack history. Its quarterback was a future NFL star in Russell Wilson, and the defense was led by a monster linebacker in Nate Irving. It represented one of NC State's best chances since 1979 to end its lengthy ACC title drought in football, but fell at Maryland — or more specifically receiver Torrey Smith — 38-31 in the regular-season finale. Had the Pack won that game, NC State would have played in the ACC Championship game. Instead, Florida State represented the Atlantic.
That 2010 squad was actually ranked three different times in the regular season. It began the year with a 4-0 start that included winning at eventual 10-win Central Florida, a home win over future Tennessee coach Butch Jones and Cincinnati, and a 17-point victory at defending ACC champ Georgia Tech. That enabled it to enter the top 25 at No. 23.
Each time NC State was ranked however, it lost the following week, including at Maryland when the Pack was No. 21.
The last time NC State was ranked in back-to-back weeks? You have to go back to the start of the 2003 season when it began the year No. 16 and went to No. 14 in week two, several days before the Pack was upset at Wake Forest and began a dubious six-game losing streak in Winston-Salem.
If the set-up was better, my prediction would be that NC State ends that long stretch and rises in the poll with a win over Louisville, but the Cards enter this game with essentially three weeks to prepare for NC State. Taking on winless Kent State and 1-4 Murray State from the FCS ranks, Louisville had to do very very little to prepare for those opponents.
Thus my prediction is that head coach Bobby Petrino, a reputed master tactician, finds a way to get Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback Lamar Jackson loose and win a close one.
Prediction: Louisville 33, NC State 31
I'll be clear on this, if Louisville was healthy, I'd pick the Cardinals, but they aren't.
Injuries are part of the game and so is timing. Louisville has the fact that they probably have been quietly preparing for NC State for weeks, and that is a major check mark on its side. However, the Cardinals would trade that preparation time for the health of star junior wide receiver Jaylen Smith and a complete return to form of junior cornerback/punt returner Jaire Alexander, who is expected to play in some sort of role Thursday.
The 6-4, 219-pound Smith had emerged the first three games as a true weapon, but then injured his wrist. He had 22 catches for 379 yards and two touchdowns, and the Wolfpack have struggled defending elite wide receivers this season. He had a 74-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter of last year's win over the Wolfpack.
Alexander, who is from Charlotte, N.C., didn't take long at Louisville to show that the Cardinals stole him in recruiting. He injured his knee in the season opener against Purdue, and he could return against NC State. Whether he plays every snap and returns punts, or appears on just obvious passing downs, his role is a big one. Alexander was expected to be a contender for All-ACC honors and perhaps even spots on some of the All-America teams.
Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson is a transcendent player, but he needs help. The Cardinals' defense also isn't close to last year's crew. As a result, I expect the Wolfpack to win in a shootout.
Prediction: NC State 38, Louisville 34.
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