WVU has tough test tonight
ORLANDO, Fla. -- West Virginia has given opposing offenses fits this season.
Tonight, it could face its staunchest test of the season in the Champs Sports Bowl, as N.C. State's offense and quarterback Russell Wilson get the opportunity to find holes in a seemingly flawless defense at 6:30 on ESPN.
The Mountaineers' defense, ranked second overall in the country, hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 21 points this season -- the only unit in the country to do so.
But WVU hasn't faced a quarterback with the ability Wilson has.
"He's the best quarterback we've seen all year, by far," Mountaineers defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "He can make plays everywhere, and he's very accurate. He knows where to put the football against different coverages and when he sees pressure. When you see a guy that can do all those things, you know he can give you some problems."
Wilson, a second-team all-ACC quarterback this season, leads the conference in passing yards per game (274.0) and total offense per game (106.8). He ranks in the top 16 in both categories among other signal-callers across the country.
He has completed 58 percent of his passes and has eight 300-yard games. And his nine rushing touchdowns compliment his 3,288 yards through the air with 26 scoring passes.
"He's been so important to us this year," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said. "We're going to have to probe through the first quarter to find out where the matchups might suit us and where we have the opportunity to make some plays."
West Virginia has given up just one 250-yard passing performance this season -- It was against rival Pitt, when the Panthers were forced to throw with a double-digit deficit in the second half. But those performances haven't come against a quarterback like Russell, who WVU defensive end Julian Miller said is a combination of Cincinnati's Zach Collaros and South Florida's B.J. Daniel.
"Our kids are aware of his abilities," Casteel said. "A big key in this game will be how we play against him and how many plays that he's able to make against us."
West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said the key to stopping Wilson will be winning first down defensively and forcing the Wolfpack into obvious passing situations on second and third downs. The Mountaineers may use more of their "SWAT" and "40" packages on early downs to fend off the pass.
"He's such a rhythm player," Stewart said. "There's probably guys with bigger arms and guys that are taller, but Russell Wilson moves the chains. It's going to be a tremendous challenge for our defense to try to stop this offense."
The N.C. State offense has struggled against pressure, however. So far this season, the Wolfpacks' offensive line has given up 34 sacks. That's good news for the Mountaineers pass rush, third-best in the country with 40 sacks.
"I'm happy, because they throw the ball almost 40 times a game," said WVU defensive end Bruce Irvin, who has a team-leading 12 sacks. "I feel like I'm going to be out there a lot more this game."
The Mountaineers will be without starting cornerback Brandon Hogan, who tore his ACL in the regular-season finale against Rutgers. Sophomore Pat Miller, who stands 5-foot-10, will take Hogan's place, giving the taller N.C. State receivers the advantage.
"I'm very concerned, because it's probably going to be jump ball city," Stewart said. "They are so explosive ... but we have our speed and quickness to our advantage.Additional Information:
Champs Sports Bowl
West Virginia vs. N.C. State
6:30 p.m., Citrus Bowl, Orlando, Fla.
Favorite: West Virginia by 4
Records: West Virginia 9-3; N.C. State 8-4
Series: West Virginia, 5-4
Last Meeting: 1979, N.C. State, 38-14
Outlook: West Virginia has a chance to earn 10 wins for only the seventh time in school history. It's a little extra incentive in what is otherwise a consolation prize for a Mountaineers team that finished in a three-way tie for the Big East title. North Carolina State is looking to go out on a high note after a disappointing regular-season finale, when the Wolfpack were knocked out of the Atlantic Coast Conference title game by Maryland.