NC State experienced a 2011 of deep valleys, but lofty highs. Fortunately for Tom O’Brien, the Wolfpack peaked at the right time. NCSU finished 6-2 after surrendering 44 and 45 in consecutive, early losses; won four of its final five, and joined Florida State as the lone ACC programs to win bowl games.
Quite a turnaround for a team that after a September, Thursday night embarrassment vs. Cincinnati seemed more likely to enter 2012 with a coaching change than with conference title aspirations. O’Brien’s gamble on Mike Glennon started to pay dividends through October and into December of last season. Russell Wilson had a tremendous campaign in leading Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl, but statistically Glennon held his own when compared to their production at NCSU:
Wilson, 2010: 308-527 (58.4 percent), 3563 yards, 28 touchdowns, 14 interceptions
Glennon, 2011: 283-453 (62.5 percent), 3054 yards, 31 touchdowns, 12 interceptions
Wilson blew the doors off Glennon as a rusher, but the difference in each player’s style makes that an apples-and-oranges comparison. Glennon will have plenty of other rushing options, part of what will make O’Brien’s move look downright genius come 2012.
To wit, the 2010 and 2011 leading rushers share the backfield with a game-tested Glennon. Mustafa Greene went for a shade below 600 yards in 2010, but missed last season with an injured foot. James Washington racked up nearly 900 yards in his stead and scored seven touchdowns. Tony Creecy tacked on another 401 yards last season. That makes for some impressive depth at halfback, which could help the offensive line acclimate. The bad news is the front five allowed 34 sacks (No. 98) and 73 tackles for loss (No. 54). The good news is it’s an upperclassmen laden group.
That can only benefit the strong-armed Glennon, who loses his top target (T.J. Graham) but returns a healthy 1200+ yards of receiving contribution. Glennon’s issue early in the campaign while NCSU struggled appeared to be more of a chemistry and timing issue with his receivers. Once those were ironed out, the Pack became a formidable offensive team. NCSU finished fourth in the conference in points per game at a little over 28, and scored 31 on Louisville in the Belk Bowl. Those 31 points were the most UL yielded to any team all season, save for West Virginia — and we saw what WVU’s offense was capable of in the Orange Bowl.
And here we are, all these words with no mention of the Pack’s best player. David Amerson was a showstopper on the defensive last season, earning 1st Team All-ACC and All-American (Walter Camp) honors with an astounding 13 interceptions. That’s as many as Alabama had as a team.
Replicating such success would be virtually impossible. Opposing offensive coordinators are certain to tailor their passing attacks to avoid throwing to Amerson’s side of the field, but the drop-off in the rest of the secondary is minimal. Safety Brandon Bishop also finished in the top 20 nationally with five picks. Earl Wolff had three, and both were All-Conference selections.
The secondary fed off a solid rush, and NCSU does lose the linebackers who wreaked havoc off the blitz, Audie Cole and Terrell Manning. DC Mike Archer does have a knack for developing linebackers though, and with that unit sandwiched between experienced, talented units, expect a quick baptism. Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman set a solid foundation for blitz packages, and Brian Slay is a seasoned big body in the middle.
Raleigh proved to be a trap locale down the stretch — after losing to Georgia Tech early on, NCSU rolled off four straight home wins. Including among those was a 24-point pasting of eventual league champion Clemson, and the program’s fifth straight defeat of North Carolina. Carter-Finley Stadium will host likely league frontrunner Florida State, and a good Virginia team in 2012, the latter of which NCSU beat on the road. The Pack avoids Virginia Tech.