Redshirt junior quarterback Russell Wilson rejoined NC State's football team just in time for the start of preseason camp in August, and he quickly realized that something was different about this year's team. He concluded this year's squad has a chance to do something special.
"The competitiveness of our team on offense and defense really picked up during practice," Wilson said. "That's what I noticed right off the bat. Obviously, as we've stayed healthy that would help. That's kind of different than what we've had in the past that would hurt us. We definitely had an opportunity to play well and start off well, and we started to do that.
"I think more than anything, we've always competed in practice obviously and gone hard, but I think guys, the leaders on the team, the older guys, really wanted to push the younger guys. We made sure we did that from day one. Practice makes perfect. We're never perfect, but we try to be great on the field every Saturday."
NC State started the year 4-0 and won its conference opener over defending ACC champ Georgia Tech in a convincing 45-28 triumph in Atlanta. Wilson though noted after the Pack held on for a 28-21 win at Central Florida in the second game of the season that this team began to come together.
"After the UCF game, when we pulled that game out as a team, we realized how much of a team we were and how together we were on offense and defense and special teams," Wilson said. "As the season went on, we played some big games here at home and even away, and we capitalized on those games."
Ironically, it was against Central Florida that Wilson had one of his toughest games of the season. He completed just 10 of 30 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown and ran 13 times for 35 yards. The defense though bailed the Pack out, and for perhaps the first time since Wilson has been under center, NC State did not need a spectacular performance from its quarterback to win a game.
Wilson said that did not change his perception of his role on this year's team.
"I never feel pressure to perform," Wilson noted. "I have all the confidence in myself and all the confidence in the world in the offense. There's no pressure as long as I try to understand what I am trying to do and play one play at a time. It's pretty much just like practice, just play at a time."
Focused on Maryland
Wilson is leaving no stone unturned for Saturday's big game against Maryland. If NC State wins, they clinch the Atlantic Division title and earn a trip to the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech in Charlotte, N.C., on Dec. 4.
Wilson's happy that the campus will be quiet for Thanksgiving break, but he also hopes the Pack will be smart for their annual meal at Angus Barn on Thursday night.
"You do have to watch what you are going to eat, and you do have to be smart because normally on Thursday you don't eat as much as you are going to eat on Thanksgiving," Wilson said. "I'm always thinking about the game. I am going to get my Angus Barn worth, but after that you really have to watch what you eat."
Wilson is also hoping that the offense pays careful attention to Maryland's at times confusing defense. The Terps like to use motion at the snap to confuse opposing offenses, and they will likely blitz often.
"They definitely do some unique stuff," Wilson said. "We have to be prepared for that. Last year they blitzed a good amount as well and most of the teams they've played this year, they've blitzed a lot. They put pressure on the quarterbacks and offensive line. We just have to relax and know what we are doing and execute the plays and get first downs.
"It comes through preparations during the week. Our scout team has to do a great job of getting us a good look. I've seen a lot of different things since I've been playing here. I'm used to a lot of different defenses and teams moving around. I have to just watch film and understanding what's going on."
Wilson noted that like NC State, Maryland's defense was young last year and is now a year older and more experienced. That has helped them go from a 2-10 season in 2010 to 7-4 entering Saturday's game.
"It's hard for me to say how much better they are," Wilson said. "I think they did a lot of great things last year in terms of defensively from watching them on film last year. I cannot say they did a bad job last year. They looked great to me on defense, same guys flying around. It's going to be a challenge for us and be ready for it."
Maryland could have also been playing for an ACC championship game berth, but lost a 30-16 home game to Florida State last Saturday that eliminated the Terps from consideration. If NC State wins Saturday, they play for the league title, otherwise Florida State is going to Charlotte.
The Terps led 16-13 late in the third quarter before giving up a 44-yard touchdown pass from FSU's Christian Ponder to Bert Reed. Maryland trailed 23-16 but was driving and at the Florida State 19 when redshirt freshman quarterback Danny O'Brien threw a pick six that was returned 96 yards by Nick Moody for a touchdown with 36 seconds left in the game.
A disheartened Maryland squad may have trouble mustering the energy and motivation to play Saturday. Conventional wisdom is that NC State needs to get off to a good start to take Maryland out of the game quickly.
"It's always important to start off with a good start," Wilson said. "Maryland has had a great season. They got great players, a great coach and great coaching staff. We're going to have to play great football on Saturday, and we know that. We're up for the challenge."