by Mike Potter
N.C. State looks to hit its high water mark in the Tom O’Brien era on Tuesday night, when the Wolfpack takes on Big East power West Virginia (9-3) in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.
State last won a bowl game in 2005, when the Wolfpack blanked South Florida 14-0 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte.
Led by quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Nate Irving, who recovered to play a solid senior campaign after being seriously injured in a car accident in the summer of 2009, the Wolfpack came within one win of playing in the ACC championship game after being picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division.
“We have a special group of guys that has never really had a chance to show how good they were or what they could accomplish,” said O’Brien, who is in his fourth season at the helm and needs one victory for his 100th as a head coach. “This year was the first year they really had that opportunity, and that’s really what coaching is all about, taking young men who come to us as boys and making them leave as young men.
“This group has grown together as tightly as any group I’ve been around. And for the expectations that were set by the press early in the year, they’ve accomplished more than I think anybody could have thought they would accomplish. It’s a great testament to the seniors and to this whole football program.”
West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, who is heading into his last season at the Mountaineers’ helm, said he is impressed with what he has seen of the Wolfpack.
“I see athleticism on offense with a quarterback who absolutely makes plays and gets into a rhythm,” Stewart said. “They have tall receivers, two big tight ends and offensive line and a running back stable that’s not one big star but a group of guys. The staggering statistic that really got my attention was the 44 percent ratio of third downs that they had attained and yet giving up 32 percent to their opponents. That’s what just wows you right away.
“Their linebackers and their front seven just come down on you. I love the way their secondary just comes after you. It’s going to be quite a challenge.”
WVU had four defensive players — lineman Chris Neild, linebacker J.T. Thomas, cornerback Keith Tandy and safety Robert Sands — named first-team All-Big East while quarterback Geno Sands was among seven Mountaineers on the second team.
The Wolfpack is 12-11-1 all-time in bowl games, including a split of a pair of games with West Virginia.
N.C. State vs. No. 22 West Virginia
Champs Sports Bowl
[Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando]
WVU leads series 5-4.
Records: NCSU 8-4; WVU 9-3.
Audio: WRBZ 850, WRAL-FM 101.5, Sirius 121, XM 141.
Coaches’ records — NCSU: Tom O’Brien 99-70, 23-25 at NCSU; WVU: Bill Stewart 36-36, 28-11 at WVU.
Leading rushers — NCSU: Mustafa Greene 131-563, 4 TD; WVU: Noel Devine 201-811, 6 TD.
Leading passers — NCSU: Russell Wilson 280-482-3288-14, 26 TD; WVU: Geno Smith 219-333-2567-6, 23 TD.
Leading receivers — NCSU: Owen Spencer 57-868, 4 TD; WVU: Tavon Austin 53-757, 8 TD.
Leading tacklers — NCSU: Nate Irving 93, 19 ½ TFL, 5 ½ Sk, 2 FF, 1 FR; WVU: Terrence Garvin 71, 4 ½ TFL, 1 Sk, 1 FF, 1 FR.
Favorite — WVU by 2 ½ (Vegas).