by Joe Schwartz
Wolfpack head to Tallahassee
N.C. State (3-4, 0-3 ACC) vs. Florida State (3-4, 1-2 ACC)
[Noon, Saturday, Doak Campbell Staidum]
Broadcast info: ABC, 101.5 FM
When you go to the official N.C. State athletics football Web page and a story about Wolfpack players in the NFL greets you, you know there haven't been a lot of good things to write about Tom O'Brien's club this season. It started decently enough. Russell Wilson set the NCAA record for most consecutive passes without an interception (he's thrown four in four games since), Toney Baker returned from a two-year knee rehab (he's run well since fumbling on the season's first play) and the team raced out to a 3-1 start (two wins against Football Championship Subdivision foes and a shootout against Pitt.
Of course, after that victory, O'Brien told his team they weren't good, and he's been right ever since. They hit the road for the first time all season and lost to Wake Forest. They were beaten by three touchdowns by Duke, a team that hadn't won in Raleigh since 1984. Two weeks ago Boston College ran all over them, Montel Harris leading the charge with 264 yards on the ground.
The bye week came at a perfect time. Now the Wolfpack are set to take the field on Bobby Bowden's home turf against a less-than-their-best Florida State team that won its first ACC contest last Thursday in Chapel Hill. It's a defining game for both teams. One that O'Brien and Bowden both know they need to salvage their seasons, and in Bowden's case to continue his storied career.
Key stats … Florida State leads the all-time series 20-9 but this isn't your grandfather's Seminole squad. Well, it kind of is, a grandfather is the head coach, but you know what I mean. The point being, this isn't the typical NFL-laden, blindingly fast team that could overcome a dozen penalties and win are pure athleticism anymore. Florida State had a three game losing streak prior to rallying after what Bowden called one of the worst two quarters of football a team of his has ever played and beating UNC on national television. Up until then, fans and trustees alike had been called for his scalp.
N.C. State meanwhile is giving up 27 points a game, and has been shredded by air by Duke's Thaddeus Lewis and by ground by the aforementioned Harris. On the other side of the ball, they are scoring 32 points every time out and Wilson and Baker have each had success this year.
Florida State will win if … Christian Ponder studies Thaddeus Lewis's game time really well. Ponder has been a prolific passer this year and he's coming off a 395 yard performance. He should be able to find the holes in a secondary that's struggled to define itself this year. The Seminoles will need to find the legs to their running game, which only netted 43 yards against the Tar Heels. They'll also need linebackers to stay disciplined and sometimes spy on Wilson, who is second on the team in rushing with 36 yards a game, and he's always a threat to take off for a big gain.
N.C. State will win if … O'Brien works his bye week magic again. As Tim Peeler points out in his column this week, the Wolfpack head man's clubs have jumpstarted their seasons after byes in back-to-back years. The first thing to fix is that defense that has been brutalized by the Wildcat and spread offenses this year. Wilson will need to return to his interception-free form and keep the Wolfpack in it early as a rejuvenated Seminole team feeds off its home crowd.
Players to watch Ponder found Rod Owens nine times for 198 yards against UNC, and Owens must be salivating when watching some of the big plays N.C. State has given up through missed tackles downfield this year. Owens 98-yard touchdown last week won't be topped, but he should find himself open in this one.
N.C. State needs Baker to control the clock in a game where neither defense has looked good enough to stop the competition. He's averaging 5.3 yards a tote this year and looks to continue that on Saturday. Mackey Award "Watch List" designee and Wilson safety valve George Bryan should also have a productive day at tight end.
Vegas line Florida State (-9)
Score prediction and brief explanation Florida State's at home, and after witnessing what Lewis did in Raleigh, it's hard to imagine this N.C. State team stifling Ponder's incredible arm and accuracy. The Seminoles take this one 35-24.