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December 11, 2009

Season in review: 2009 NC State football team

The NC State football team started off the season with excitement, and ended with a thrilling victory over arch-rival North Carolina in the finale.

In-between, the Wolfpack went through frustrating narrow losses against South Carolina and Wake Forest, and then the bottom dropped out with losses to Duke and Boston College during a four-game losing streak.

NC State finished 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the ACC. When the losses started mounting, so did the injuries. The Wolfpack played without superstar redshirt junior outside linebacker Nate Irving the entire season due to a broken leg suffered in a car accident June 28. Sixteen players missed the North Carolina victory, including 10 that were either in their first or second year at NCSU.

The optimism will build during the offseason, and the players will get healthy. The Wolfpack will be trying to snap a four-year streak of teams of sub-.500 records.

Here are some superlatives from the 2009 season:

Biggest Win: NC State defeated one top 20 team in the final regular season top 25 - winning 38-31 against No. 17 Pittsburgh on Sept. 26, but the Panthers were unranked at the time. The lasting memory of the 2009 season will be the 28-27 regular season finale victory against North Carolina on Nov. 28 at Carter-Finley Stadium. The 17 seniors went out a winner, and the Wolfpack extended their winning streak against the Tar Heels to three games under third-year coach Tom O'Brien. UNC, which was ranked No. 23 at the time, built a 24-14 halftime lead, but redshirt sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson connected twice with junior wide receiver Owen Spencer for touchdowns. Wilson went 20 of 27 for 259 yards and four touchdowns, and zero interceptions.

Best Individual Performance Offense: Wilson threw four touchdown passes for the third-straight game against Pittsburgh on Sept. 26, and was the best player on the field in the 38-31 victory. He went 21 of 35 for 322 yards, and ran for 91 on 10 carries. He helped the Wolfpack overcome a 14-point deficit, and didn't throw any interceptions.

Best Individual Performance Defense: Fifth-year senior defensive end Willie Young tied his career high with three sacks against Wake Forest on Oct. 3, resulting in losses for 24 yards. He forced a crucial fumble on the game's second play that set up an early Wolfpack touchdown. Young finished the game with six total tackles in the 30-24 loss. Teams paid extra attention to Young from that point on, and he had one sack the rest of the season.

Best Individual Performance Special Teams: Sophomore T.J. Graham turned the corner against Duke on a kickoff return and went 93 yards for a touchdown in the 49-28 loss Oct. 10. He returned seven kickoffs for 202 yards, and two punts for 13.

Play Of The Year: Spencer got behind North Carolina safety Da'Norris Searcy for a 38-yard touchdown reception, his second of the game, to put the Wolfpack up 28-27. Wilson took a big hit from defensive end C.J. Wilson on the eventual game-winning throw, which came on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Most Exciting Play: NC State was clinging to a 28-27 lead in the fourth quarter against North Carolina, and the Tar Heels got down to the 19-yard line. The defense rose up to force a Casey Barth 38-yard field goal, but 6-1, 290-pound defensive tackle Alan-Michael Cash rose up to block it and preserve the Wolfpack lead. NC State inherited the ball with 4:44 left in the game and ran it out until 23 seconds remained.

Biggest Missed Opportunity: The turning point of the season was the loss against Wake Forest. NC State played well in spurts in that game, but the Demon Deacons made the plays that were needed. Wake Forest running back Josh Adams ensured the clock would run out with his hard running at the end of the game, and the Wolfpack went on a four-game losing streak. Wake Forest supplied the blueprint for future opponents on how to attack the NC State defense. Redshirt senior quarterback Riley Skinner aired it out, going 31 of 45 for 361 yards and three touchdowns.

Best Running Play: Wilson was facing fourth down and 14 yards at the Pittsburgh 28-yard line. The field goal option was there, but O'Brien elected to go for it. Wilson dropped back and started to take off toward the right sideline. There was a lot of open space, and Wilson scooted for 21 yards to the Panthers' 7-yard line. Wilson then found tight end George Bryan for a touchdown on the next play, using some nice misdirection to tie the game 31-31.

Best Catch: Spencer raced past North Carolina cornerback Charles Brown and caught a Wilson post pass off his shoulder pads against North Carolina and raced 56 yards for a touchdown to cut the Tar Heels' third-quarter lead to 24-21. The play was the first of the drive.

Longest Pass Play: Florida State went 98 yards on 12 plays to take a 7-0 lead and NC State answered in one play. Wilson threw a strike to Spencer for an 80-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7. It was déjà vu from last year when Spencer did it against the Seminoles. The shootout was officially on from that point of the game, resulting in a 45-42 FSU win Oct. 31.

Biggest Defensive Stand: Pittsburgh got a gift when linebacker Max Gruder recovered an errant Ted Larsen center snap at the eight-yard line with 2:45 left in the game, down 38-31. True freshman safety Brandan Bishop helped come up with the big play when quarterback Bill Stull lofted a pass to tight end Dorin Dickerson in the end zone on third down and eight, but Bishop helped knock the ball out of the tight end's hands. Pitt had a miscommunication on fourth down, and that sealed the win for NC State.

Biggest Sack: Young blindsided Wake Forest quarterback Skinner on the first of his three sacks, which came on the second play of the game. Young's hit came just as Skinner was winding up to throw and forced a fumble. NC State defensive tackle Leroy Burgess recovered the fumble at the WFU 33-yard-line, and took an early 7-0 lead.

Best Interception: The two best interceptions of the season were both by defensive linemen. Defensive end Michael Lemon dropped into coverage for an acrobatic interception against South Carolina in the season opener Sept. 3. However, defensive tackle Burgess pick helped prevent at least three point scored against Wake Forest. Skinner and the Demon Deacons drove down to the NCSU 17-yard line, and Burgess picked off the intended screen pass, and then made like a fullback, rumbling 40 yards to the WFU 40. NC State couldn't do anything with the good field position though.

Biggest Hit: Fifth-year senior safety Bobby Floyd was known for his hard-hitting ways, and he might have delivered the biggest tackle of the season when he knocked Duke receiver Johnny Williams woozy on a pass over the middle. NC State redshirt sophomore linebacker Audie Cole also had a nice hit on Boston College quarterback David Shinskie, blindsiding him right between the numbers in his back for a sack Oct. 17. Young's first sack on Skinner was also impressive.

Best Return: NC State was involved in a shootout when the previously mentioned Graham touchdown return occurred against Duke. The Wolfpack were trailing 28-21 in a back-and-forth affair, and momentum turned when Graham tied the game with a 93-yard return. Duke took advantage of two other special teams mistakes to go on to win 49-28.

Best Kick: Redshirt junior kicker Josh Czajkowski set a career high with a 48-yard field goal with 51 seconds left in the first quarter against Maryland, to give the Wolfpack a 17-14 lead in the first quarter Nov. 7.

Biggest Kick Block: Cash's blocked field goal was one of two on the year. However, the second one didn't have anywhere near the same impact, though it was important. Redshirt junior defensive end Audi Augustin blocked a field goal in the 38-31 win over Maryland on Nov. 7. Sophomore fullback Taylor Gentry also partially blocked a punt that went 35 yards against Florida State.

Best Record: Wilson created history when his 13-yard pass found the hands of true freshman running back James Washington in the middle of the field against Gardner-Webb on Sept. 19. Wilson broke the record for most consecutive passes without an interception, snapping the streak of 325 passes by former Kentucky star quarterback Andre Woodson. He stretched the record to 379 passes before having Wake Forest safety Josh Bush snap the streak.

Best Welcome Back Moment: Fifth-year senior running Toney Baker caught a short pass against Pittsburgh, and was able to show his burst, power and elusiveness all on the play. Baker went 38 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half to tie the game 17-17. From that point on, the Wolfpack knew it count on Baker to deliver.

Best Non-Tackles: Fifth-year senior defensive Shea McKeen was involved in two crucial plays against North Carolina that didn't result in a tackle. NC State was leading 28-27 in the fourth quarter, and wide receiver Greg Little took a reverse and ran around end for a solid gain. However, UNC tight end Zack Pianalto was called for holding McKeen, pushing the Tar Heels back to the NCSU 44. North Carolina's drive stalled at the 33-yard line, when they turned it over on downs.

McKeen then helped stuff UNC's next series when he turned back receiver Jheranie Boyd on a reverse, helping teammate Young stuff him for a 12-yard loss back to the NCSU 31-yard line. That drive eventually resulted in Barth's 38-yard field goal blocked.

Best Fill-In Job: NC State found out junior left tackle Jake Vermiglio was too ill to play 45 minutes before the Wolfpack played Maryland. Redshirt freshman Andrew Wallace made his second start of the season, and played 72 plays without giving up a sack in the 38-31 win.

Biggest Offensive Failure: NC State appeared to be poised to take the lead late in the fourth quarter against Wake Forest. Wilson had led a drive to the Wake Forest 29-yard line with plenty of time remaining. NC State had it first and 10, and Wilson decided to go for it all, trying to hit redshirt junior receiver Donald Bowens in the end zone. WFU cornerback Kenny Okoro had coverage on Bowens' outside shoulder and was able to intercept the pass in the back of the end zone with 2:02 left, ending what would be NC State's last possession in the loss.

Biggest Defensive Failure: Wake Forest put a huge dagger into NC State's heart when Skinner found receiver Chris Givens in the back of the end zone on a third down and 23 play from the NC State 25-yard line. Givens did a good job getting both feet down in the back of the end zone while catching a rope from Skinner to make it 27-17 with a little over 10 minutes left in the game.

Biggest Special Teams Failure: NC State struggled on special teams throughout the season, but one play might have led to a sure loss. Speedy Wake Forest return man Lovell Jackson went 80 yards on a kickoff to the NC State 16-yard line, swinging the momentum back to the Demon Deacons. The Wolfpack defense did a great job of holding the Demon Deacons to a 21-yard field goal, but it helped give WFU a 30-24 lead, which was the final score. NC State's last drive needed to be for a touchdown instead of a game-tying field goal.


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