Wolfpack QB Wilson settles in for win

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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RALEIGH, N.C. -- It may be Halloween season, but for North Carolina State to knock off Florida State at home Thursday in Carter-Finley Stadium they just needed Russell Wilson to show up in, well, a Russell Wilson costume.

Wilson has not looked like himself recently. The leader of the Wolfpack offense entered the game throwing eight interceptions in his last three games, after starting the first four games with only one pick. But in the 28-24 upset victory over the Seminoles, Wilson put together one of his most complete offensive performances of the season. Wilson completed 18 of 28 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown, but really burned the Seminoles with his feet. He rushed for a team-high 17 attempts for 90 yards and three touchdowns, including a 20-yard scramble where Wilson was met head-on by a pair of Florida State defenders and still willed himself over the plane for the score.

"He got after it," said tight end George Bryan, the recipient of the winning touchdown pass. "He led us down the field and he's a great leader. I'd follow him anywhere and do anything for him."

The rushing was a pleasant surprise for many N.C. State fans. There have been murmurs floating around Raleigh (particularly in times of turmoil for Wilson) that the quarterback has not been the same since getting drafted and signing a contract with the Colorado Rockies. Many fans have observed that Wilson has not been as willing to use his feet as he was during his impressive 2008 ACC Rookie of the Year campaign.

However, N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien has argued persistently that no one is telling Russell not to run, but instead he has charged that Wilson run more responsibly. On Thursday night, Wilson demonstrated that kind of maturity in the pocket that O'Brien has been waiting for.

"I don't know where you get this [idea] that we've told him not to run, that's the most absurd thing on the face of the earth," O'Brien said. "What he did do a good job of today was stepping up in the pocket, and there were seams there he could get up in the pocket. What he is not doing is trying to run outside."

Russell Wilson will undoubtedly go down as one of the great quarterbacks in N.C. State history, and if he can demonstrate the kind of maturity in the pocket he did on Thursday, the Wolfpack will have a chance to make a run at their first berth into an ACC championship game. Florida State previously owned the top spot in the Atlantic Division with an unblemished conference record. But with the Seminoles' first conference loss Thursday, the division race has been blown wide open.

Florida State at N.C. State
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But the road will not be easy. From here, N.C. State (3-1, 6-2) must travel to Clemson to face a Tigers team that just methodically dismantled Georgia Tech 27-13. Tigers running back Andre Ellington has been a force on the ground, and the Wolfpack will need to get four quarters of gritty defense in order to keep him in check. After that, the Wolfpack host Wake Forest before closing the season on the road against North Carolina and Maryland.

The N.C. State team that showed up at times against Florida State is very capable of winning the remainder of its regular-season games. After commanding the game in the first quarter, Florida State dictated every bit of the second period on both sides of the ball. The offensive line gave up multiple sacks and N.C. State's secondary was burned multiple times by Florida State's position players. Even after Wilson scored the go-ahead touchdown to put the Wolfpack up 28-24, the defense sat back and allowed Florida State's offense to march down the field to the 4-yard line before 'Noles QB Christian Ponder fumbled to put the game away. The mental mistakes, particularly those that led to big gains by Florida State's offense and special teams, must be eliminated in order to jump the Seminoles in the Atlantic Division.

At times on Thursday, the Wolfpack looked like a team that deserved to be in the ACC title game. It's a tall order to ask of a team that has not had a winning season in six years, but they have shown the potential to knock off the best in the conference.

O'Brien said after Thursday's victory basically what he said before the game: "The next game is the biggest game in my tenure."

If the Wolfpack want to finish their season in Charlotte, that is exactly how they are going to have to get it done: one game at a time.

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