ATLANTA — N.C. State had the ball third-and-3 late in the second quarter. The best football player in the ACC took the snap, and the Georgia Tech rush came hard. Russell Wilson avoided tacklers, again, and found a receiver, again, and hit him for a first down, again.
The Wolfpack amassed so many first downs, 27, it was as if they collected them. Points, too. They beat the Yellow Jackets 45-28.
Although the game was played in downtown Atlanta, Georgia Tech's home-field advantage was muted. A third of the 48,825 fans wore long-sleeved white shirts, ties and pleated khaki shorts. Scary.
Scarier was Wilson. A junior and three-year starter from Richmond, Va., he threw for a career-high 368 yards. He threw for three touchdowns and ran for one. He was 28-of-41 with an interception.
The fourth-quarter interception could have been devastating. Under heavy pressure on third down, Wilson, who rarely makes a mistake, overthrew his receiver. Safety Jerrard Tarrant grabbed the ball and returned it 33 yards for a touchdown.
N.C. State's lead was 31-28, and even the men in the pleated khaki shorts turned somewhat loud. But on the sideline N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said there was nothing but calm.
The Wolfpack ran twice for first downs. Wilson passed for 7 yards and ran for 14. For Georgia Tech, every play N.C. State offensive coordinator Dana Bible called was an apparent surprise. The Wolfpack calmly picked up three first downs, and on third-and-11, Wilson hit T.J. Graham for a 23-yard touchdown.
The drive appeared effortless. Whatever was required, Wilson did.
"Russell is a shoo-in every game," N.C. State halfback Dean Haynes said. "He's going to play great."
Wilson prepared for the season with the Tri-City Dust Devils, where he batted leadoff and played second base. He did bring his N.C. State playbook to Pasco, Wash., and he did throw passes to teammates and to hitting coach Anthony Sanders, who once signed with the Arizona Wildcats as a fullback.
Where did you throw, on the diamond?
"The diamond, the parking lot, before practice, after practice," says Russell, compact at 5 feet 11 and 201 pounds. "They liked catching passes."
The Colorado Rockies selected Wilson in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft, and sent him to Class A Pasco. He played 32 games, batted .230, hit two home runs, drove in 11 runs and was the star of Russell Wilson Magnet Night.
"I love both sports," Wilson said. "Whichever ball I have in my hand is the one I love."
O'Brien undoubtedly would prefer that Wilson's hand remain baseball free. But he knew this was coming. Coach and quarterback had talked about the possibility since Wilson arrived on campus.
"Certainly it was a concern," O'Brien said.
Wilson was away from N.C. State football 250 days. There was no spring practice. There were no seven-on-seven drills.
There is, four games into the season, a fresh quarterback surrounded by teammates that believe.
At 4-0, the Wolfpack are the ACC's lone undefeated team. They get Virginia Tech, at home, next week.
The Hokies get Wilson.
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