I got together with the SB Nation N. C. State blog Backing the 'Pack's akulawolf to talk about tomorrow night's game.Here's what he had to say in response to my questions. My answers to his questions are here.
1. Deservedly, Russell Wilson is getting a lot of positive press coming into the season. However, you lose running back Andre Brown to the NFL and reports out of spring practice were that the running game and offensive line were shaky. How worried are you about these elements of N.C. State's offense? Will Wilson be able to carry the 'Pack is he's not getting any help from the running game and is constantly under pressure?
Four experienced offensive linemen return and this was a unit that, much like the offense as a whole, improved quite a bit down the stretch last season. Over the last seven games of 2008, the Wolfpack averaged about 160 rushing yards per game and more than 4 yards per carry. The offensive line should be competent at least to point where Russell Wilson isn't forced to do it all himself.
Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene should prove plenty capable of carrying the load at running back. We already know Eugene can be the primary ball carrier, and the fact that Baker has worked his way back to the top of the depth chart despite missing the last two years is encouraging.
2. Even with star linebacker Nate Irving out, State's front seven looks pretty solid. Will your defense be able to win the battle in the trenches against a USC offensive line that struggled last year?
South Carolina had one of its most successful days on the ground last season against NC State, so...maybe? I do like the defensive line quite a bit, but as with the rest of the defense, it's wait-and-see.
3. Name one player that USC fans may not know much about who will have a major impact on this game.
Keep an eye on TJ Graham. His speed makes him a dangerous kick returner and if he's improved his route running, he might be good for a big pass play or two.
4. My impression is that N. C. State comes into Tom O'Brien's third year with discernibly increased expectations. What do you expect out of this team? Do you think O'Brien is on schedule as far as bringing the program up to the kind of level you expected out of him when State hired him?
Seven or eight wins sounds about right to me at this point (3-1 out-of-conference and 4-5 wins in league play). If the offense builds on what it did during the latter half of last season, it's going to be one of the top offenses in the ACC and probably the most dangerous offense we've had since Philip Rivers played here.
If the defense gets its act together--and it could; this is the best defensive line we've had in a while--this team will contend for the division. But that's the best-case scenario. A more likely scenario, I think, is that the defense makes a modest improvement but remains a liability. More worrisome than Nate Irving's absence is a secondary that's neither deep nor experienced. Tom O'Brien has said some good things about the talent we have in the secondary, and those kids have been making plays in the scrimmages. But I'm regarding those guys as a significant weakness until they prove otherwise.
As for the trajectory of the program, if anything, Tom O'Brien is ahead of schedule. There wasn't supposed to be serious talk about winning the division in year three. He's still got a lot of work to do in terms of building depth, especially in the aforementioned secondary and offensive line, but I'm confident that we're on the right track and that we'll eventually be a program that wins 8-9 games on regular basis.
5. What kind of game do you expect and what's your prediction on the outcome?
For some reason I get the feeling that Stephen Garcia is going to play well on Thursday, which would make for a surprisingly high-scoring game. No doubt that will come to the great relief of the rest of the country watching and praying that this one doesn't end up like last year's...uh, whatever that was. Between the '99 hurricane game and last season's unpleasantness, it's as if NC State and South Carolina get together once a decade just to set back whatever progress the sport made in the intervening years (yet still I wish these schools played more often). But no more! I'll say NC State 28, South Carolina 24.
6. Tell those of us that are heading up to the game what to look for and expect. What restaurants do you recommend? What's the tailgating scene like? What part of town should we head to after the game for a drink? Which bar should we hit when we get there?
The tailgating is great--I think it's one of the best places to tailgate that no one talks about. Carter-Finley Stadium is located off-campus on the North Carolina state fairgrounds where there's a lot of open space. No need to worry about having to tailgate in a parking deck because there are none. (There are restrictions, however. The parking lots don't open until five hours prior to kickoff.)
You'll want to head downtown for a post-game drink; there's nothing in the immediate vicinity of the stadium and it's a short trip to the action on Glenwood South and Fayetteville Street. Some of the places at which I spend too much money include the Hibernian, Raleigh Times, Landmark Tavern, and Busy Bee. We've got a Flying Saucer, too. A comprehensive list of downtown drinking options is available here. I recommend heading for Hibernian because it's a good jump off point in the Hot Spot/high-density bar area. There's all sorts of stuff--college bars, fine and casual dining, dance clubs, sports bars--within easy walking distance of that spot.
Many thanks to akulawolf for sharing his thoughts on the game.