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Champs Sports Bowl
Teams: West Virginia (9-3) vs. NC State (8-4)
Date: December 28, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Location: Florida Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
Considering West Virginia and NC State had a chance to go to a BCS bowl entering the final week of the regular season, this matchup should be one of the most intriguing games before January 1. Conference respect is also on the line, as the Big East and ACC desperately need to have a quality bowl season to enhance its national reputation.
The Mountaineers appeared to be the top team in the Big East in October, but back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut and prompted questions about Bill Stewart’s job security in Morgantown. Although the Mountaineers finished with its third straight nine-win season under Stewart, athletic director Oliver Luck decided to name Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen as the head-coach-in-waiting to takeover the job in 2012. Stewart will serve 2011 as the head coach, before moving into a role within the athletic department in 2012.
The Wolfpack dropped three games by seven points or less this season, including a one-point loss to Clemson and a 38-31 defeat to Maryland on the final week of the regular season. The loss to Maryland ended NC State’s hopes of making its first appearance in the ACC title game. Despite falling short of the ACC title game, the eight wins by the Wolfpack is the most since 2003 and the most under current coach Tom O’Brien in Raleigh.
When West Virginia has the ball
The West Virginia offense has shown flashes of brilliance, yet dealt with frustrating bouts of inconsistency and turnovers. The Mountaineers lost 23 turnovers this year, including four in a loss to Connecticut. In addition to turnovers, a questionable offensive line has limited the offense. Quarterback Geno Smith has been solid in his first season as a starter, completing 65.7 percent of his passes, throwing for 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions. Expect Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders to be the preferred targets for Smith, both registering over 50 catches this year.
Running back Noel Devine was expected to have a monster senior season, but a foot injury suffered against LSU limited his effectiveness. The senior is 114 yards away from earning his third straight 1,000-yard season and with a month to heal, expect a different player than fans saw since early October. Devine will be joined in the backfield by 247-pound power back Ryan Clarke, a top option around the goal line.
With a suspect West Virginia offensive line, NC State should be able to get pressure on Smith. The Wolfpack ranked fourth in the NCAA with 40 sacks this year. If the defense can get to Smith and force a couple of turnovers, the Wolfpack should be in good shape to win this game.
When NC State has the ball
Quarterback Russell Wilson carried the NC State offense this year, throwing for 3,288 yards and 26 touchdowns. Wilson has been one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC over the last three seasons, but this could be his final game in a Wolfpack uniform. The junior was drafted by the Colorado Rockies and may choose to pursue a baseball career over football after this game.
If this is Wilson’s last game, he didn’t get an easy draw. West Virginia’s secondary is one of the best in the nation, ranking 11th against the pass. However, the Mountaineers have a huge question mark heading into this game with the status of cornerback Brandon Hogan. Hogan was arguably the top cornerback in the Big East this year, but a knee injury has clouded his status for this game. If the senior can’t go, Keith Tandy, Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins need to step up and slow down Wilson and a deep group of weapons, led by Owen Spencer with 868 receiving yards this season.
Mustafa Greene led the Wolfpack with 584 rushing yards, but running room could be difficult to find against the Mountaineers, ranked second nationally in rush defense. Expect Wilson to chip in on the rushing attack, as he led the team with nine rushing scores. West Virginia registered 40 sacks this year and with a questionable offensive line protecting for Wilson, this will be one area the Big East’s best defense can exploit.
Both teams are relatively solid on field goals, with NC State’s Josh Czajkowski connecting on 17 of 22 attempts, while West Virginia’s Tyler Bitancurt has hit 10 of 15 this year. Gregg Pugnetti averaged 41.7 yards per punt this year for the Mountaineers, while NC State has used Andy Leffler and Jeff Ruiz on punts this year, both averaging under 40 yards a kick. Returns are in good hands for NC State with T.J. Graham, while receivers Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin will be options for West Virginia.
West Virginia NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 49 (162.2 ypg)
Pass Offense: 66 (214.4 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 65 (26.7 ppg)
Rush Defense: 2 (85.1 ypg)
Pass Defense: 11 (166.3 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 2 (12.8 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 61 (-.08)
NC State NCAA Rankings (out of 120 teams)
Rush Offense: 93 (125 ypg)
Pass Offense: 19 (281.7 ypg)
Scoring Offense: 29 (32.6 ppg)
Rush Defense: 12 (113 ypg)
Pass Defense: 78 (227.5 ypg)
Scoring Defense: 39 (22.5 ppg)
Turnover Margin: 39 (.25)
Prediction: The Mountaineers should win this game if they can avoid the turnover problems that have plagued the offense throughout the season. Although NC State’s passing attack will test the secondary, expect the West Virginia defense to get enough pressure on Wilson to limit his opportunities. Getting Noel Devine healthy on offense is a huge break for West Virginia and will help ease the pressure on Geno Smith.
West Virginia by 3