NC State took advantage of their Thursday night game against Cincinnati at Carter-Finley Stadium in front of a national television audience to showcase a new and improved team in 2010. The Pack improved to 3-0 with a convincing 30-19 triumph over the two-time defending Big East champ. Now it's time for some Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
Key moment of the game:
The only taste of adversity NC State faced in this game was after Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros connected with receiver D.J. Woods for a wide open 68-yard catch and run touchdown on what appeared to be a busted coverage over the middle of the field. The score cut NC State's lead to 14-7 with 3:12 left in the first half.
NC State responded authoritatively however. Wolfpack redshirt junior quarterback Russell Wilson led a 7-play, 72-yard drive down the field for a touchdown before halftime. He connected with redshirt junior running back Curtis Underwood Jr. for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 1:04 left in the half. Fifth-year senior Josh Czajkowski had a rare extra point miss, but State carried a 20-7 halftime lead into the locker rooms thanks to the touchdown, and Cincinnati could not claim any momentum heading into the break.
Three things that worked:
1. Rush defense
For all the talk of the impact of linebackers coach Jon Tenuta and the pressure blitz packages that he may or may not have brought to the defense, the staple of a Tom O'Brien defense going back to this Boston College days has been their abilities to stop the run. For the third straight week NC State shut down the opposing team's running game. The Bearcats ran for just 75 yards on 31 carries, the huge bulk of those coming from Collaros.
2. Moving the football
The Pack totaled an impressive 491 yards against what was supposed to be an improved Cincinnati defense. There was good balance to the attack as well. State had 158 yards rushing and averaged 4.4 yards per rush. They had 333 yards passing and averaged 8.3 yards per throw. State converted 5 of 12 third downs and owned the time of possession in every quarter, amassing a 34:49 to 25:11 advantage for the game.
3. Energy level
Although some probably did not like talking about the quick turnaround as a potential excuse, the reality is that the four-day break between a physical Saturday night game in muggy Orlando to Thursday night's contest was a legitimate concern. State held up very well though, a testament to their conditioning. NC State appeared to be the much fresher team of the two.
Three things that did not work:
1. Ball security
Neither team did a great job holding onto the football. Cincinnati put the ball on the ground five times themselves, but that does not excuse NC State's four fumbles, two of which they lost for their first turnovers of the year. Fifth-year senior receiver Jarvis Williams' fumble cost State a touchdown, and redshirt freshman running back Dean Haynes set Cincinnati up with great field position when he put the ball on the turf. The Bearcats though could not take advantage of either opportunity.
2. Putting Cincinnati away
The truth is State should have put the game on ice a lot earlier than they did. Although State never felt threatened after they went up 20-7 right before halftime, it was not until redshirt sophomore linebacker Colby Jackson blocked a punt that set up Wilson's 8-yard touchdown pass to junior fullback Taylor Gentry to put State up 30-7 with 7:27 left in the game that State truly put the Bearcats away.
If Williams doesn't fumble, State would have taken a commanding 21-0 first quarter lead and the rout is probably on. State's next drive stalled at the Cincinnati 34 thanks in part to a first down false start penalty. The drive after that reached the Cincinnati 36 when Haynes fumbled on second and eight and it was recovered by redshirt junior tight end George Bryan for a three-yard loss. The Pack's opening drive of the second half had to settle for a 19-yard field goal. The next possession stalled at the Cincinnati 30 when the Pack could not convert a fourth and five.
3. Sustaining four quarters of defense
It's nit-picky, but State's defenses seemed to let their guard down after the Pack went up 30-7. Cincinnati scored on a 65-yard drive in just three plays in under a minute and then on a 90-yard march on four plays in just over a minute on drives that were way too easy. Cincinnati's lone score in the first three quarters also came too easy thanks to a busted coverage.
Breaking down the position battles:
NC State's OL vs. Cincinnati's front seven
NC State running backs were only tackled behind the line of scrimmage once and that was in the fourth quarter when redshirt freshman Mustafa Greene was dropped for a one-yard loss. Wilson was sacked just twice. NC State won the battle in the trenches here.
NC State's front seven vs. Cincinnati's OL
The Pack's front seven continues to put together strong performances. State sacked Collaros five times and never allowed the Bearcats to establish their running game. However, Cincinnati's offensive line has been a weakness for them this year. They allowed eight sacks against Fresno State.
NC State's WR vs. Cincinnati's DB
Thursday night was a better effort from the receivers than the Central Florida contest. Seven different wide outs caught at least one pass, led by Williams' four receptions for 111 yards and senior Owen Spencer's four grabs for 50 yards.
NC State's DB vs. Cincinnati's WR
There were some breakdowns in coverage and that's an issue that will need to be addressed. Woods was a handful to cover and caught six passes for 146 yards, including the 68-yard score.
Collaros' numbers are inflated by the final two drives, but there was no question who was the best quarterback on the field Thursday night, and that was Wilson. The conventional wisdom before the game was that Wilson was not likely to have back-to-back bad games, and that proved correct.
Greene's 31-yard touchdown run highlighted a night where the rookie became the likely feature back for now in the Pack's offense. Greene ran 16 times for 84 yards. After Haynes' fumble issues, Underwood came in and ran hard, rushing six times for 23 yards. It's hard to comment on Cincinnati's running backs since they so rarely touched the ball, getting a total of just nine carries.
Bryan was among State's leading receivers, catching four passes for 43 yards, and he also hustled nicely to recover one of Haynes' fumbles. Cincinnati's Ben Guidugli left the game with an apparent injury after catching just one pass for three yards.
Cazjkowski missed an extra point and fifth-year senior Jeff Ruiz averaged just 30.5 yards on four punts, but the Wolfpack's coverage units were solid and State blocked a punt. Cincinnati's Jacob Rogers missed a 52-yard field goal, but he did have two touchbacks on his three kickoffs. The blocked punt tipped the scales in favor of NC State here since it was the only big play on special teams.