Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pack responds to O'Brien's challenge

The challenge laid down by coach Tom O’Brien was answered Saturday night by an offense that recorded N.C. State’s highest point total in seven years.

Russell Wilson passed for a career-high four touchdowns, and Toney Baker and James Washington each ran for two scores and caught a pass for another as N.C. State hammered Murray State 65-7 at Carter-Finley Stadium.

After the Wolfpack was held to 133 total yards in a 7-3 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 3, O’Brien demanded improvement from his offense. He said the offensive line needed to provide better pass protection after Wilson was sacked six times.

He said N.C. State’s receivers couldn’t afford to drop five passes, as they had against the Gamecocks. The linemen, receivers and virtually everybody else responded in one of the most lopsided wins in recent school history.

It was N.C. State’s largest winning margin since a 67-0 trouncing of Western Carolina on Sept. 1, 1990. The Wolfpack scored its most points since a 65-19 win over Navy on Sept. 7, 2002; the scoring total tied for eighth-highest in school history.

An offensive line playing without injured starting left tackle Jake Vermiglio paved the way. N.C. State allowed just one sack and outgained Murray State 484 yards to 36.

Our offensive line, they’ve been preparing all week to come out here and dominate on the line of scrimmage,” said Washington, a freshman elevated into a backup role because senior Jamelle Eugene was injured. “And they did that. They opened holes for the backs.”

N.C. State’s defense got the team started on the right note, with two quick fumble recoveries by tackle Leroy Burgess that led to touchdown passes by Wilson in the first five minutes.

Burgess said O’Brien didn’t react in anger after the loss to the Gamecocks. The coach matter-of-factly laid out what the team did wrong and right.

But after nine days of reflecting on the loss, Burgess said anger was a great motivator for N.C. State from the opening kickoff against Murray State.

"Losing a close game to South Carolina, obviously you’re a little mad and you want to prove what you can do,” Burgess said.

The Wolfpack scored on its first 10 possessions (nine touchdowns, one field goal) and rang up the highest point total of O’Brien’s 147 career games as head coach with N.C. State and Boston College.

N.C. State’s accomplishments are diluted somewhat because they came against a Football Championship Subdivision team.

Fellow ACC members Duke and Virginia lost on the opening week to FCS teams, but those opponents (Richmond and William & Mary, respectively) have been successful on their own level in recent years.

That wasn’t the case with Murray State, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2004. The Racers didn’t cross midfield until the 42nd minute of the game as the only drama of the night became how N.C. State would celebrate Military Appreciation Day at halftime.

The school did that with style, unfurling an American flag that covered the entire field as flashbulbs popped in the stands. By that time, N.C. State led 45-0 and had outgained Murray State 303 yards to minus-2.

"It definitely felt more in sync,” Wilson said. “I have to credit the offensive line tonight. They did great.”

With Gardner-Webb next on the schedule Saturday, the Wolfpack still will have to wait for the Sept. 26 game against Pittsburgh to have a chance to prove itself against a high-quality opponent again.

But after being challenged by its coach, the N.C. State offense performed about as well as can be expected against Murray State.

"Our defense set the tone early and our offense was very sharp,” O’Brien said. “They really fed off of each other.”

Ken Tysiac