Friday, October 29, 2010

Opening drive of 3rd quarter proved to be pivotal for N.C. State

It's hard to be epic in the era of 24-hour sports. Every moment is magnified, every event hyped, and the colossal glare of the modern media just slides from one  stage to the next as the cycle looks for its next round of fodder.

But Thursday's event at Carter-Finley Stadium was big, perhaps watershed. N.C. State, so stricken with bad luck in Tom O'Brien's era, won a monumental game with Florida State that puts the Wolfpack on track for a berth in the ACC title game. This was only a step - the Pack could easily lose Nov. 6 at Clemson, and you only need to look at the University of South Carolina to see how a good team can flop after a huge win.

There were so many important plays Thursday that there are multiple ways to define State's win. But an important clue to the eventual outcome came at halftime, when O'Brien stopped with the ESPN reporter for a brief interview with the Pack down 21-7. Asked about the second half, O'Brien said State needed to get back to doing what it does best, which is spread the field.

On hearing that, you had to be startled - coaches rarely give away insight into game plans, especially in the heat of the contest. Was O'Brien really saying State would open it up more in the second half, or was he being coy and giving a false response?

The answer, it soon became obvious, was the latter. This game turned on the Wolfpack's opening drive of the second half, and State's approach was to bludgeon the Seminole defense with the hard running of freshman Mustafa Greene. Dean Haynes got the bulk of the carries in the first half, but he suffered an injury and so State turned to Greene.

"One of our running backs went down and I was able to get the opportunity in the second half," Greene said. "We knew we going to have to run the ball down their throat and we took advantage."

Greene had only two carries for nine yards in the first half but carried six times on opening second-half drive. Russell Wilson had three critical rushes, too. Twice on third-and-1s he had quarterback sneaks for 2 yards. And he got the touchdown on a 10-yard run on third-and-6.

Florida State responded with a turnover, and State tied the score at 21 with Wilson's 20-yard run.

While the ending was monumental enough, the Wolfpack put itself in position to win with that critical stretch in the third quarter. N.C. State had to run, to take pressure off Wilson, and did. Greene rushed for 67 yards in the second half, an impressive effort against the Noles, and a State team that rushed for only 67 yards in the first half finished with 189 on the ground.

Much of the media coverage of the game, understandably, focused on the dramatic final moments. But the game really changed at the start of the third quarter, as State found a way to punch through Florida State's outstanding defense. Great teams have great balance, and that made a difference for the Wolfpack Thursday.

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