ORLANDO, Fla. — Moments after one of the biggest N.C. State wins in recent memory, coach Tom OBrien stood atop the podium at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, explaining what it meant for his program.
An excellent defensive performance and two touchdown passes by Russell Wilson helped N.C. State defeat No. 22 West Virginia 23-7 on Tuesday night in the Champs Sports Bowl in front of 48,962 fans.
The Wolfpack (9-4) forced five turnovers to complete the season tied for the second-highest win total in school history. Now OBrien wants his team to be rewarded. The win could elevate N.C. State to a ranking in the final polls for the first time since the team was No. 12 at the end of 2002.
Maybe someone will see fit to put us in the top 25, OBrien said, and it will be a great step forward for next year.
OBriens job security seemed tenuous entering the season after three straight injury-filled, losing seasons with the Wolfpack. But after the Wolfpacks first bowl win over a ranked team since a defeat of No. 17 Notre Dame in 2002, the fans admiringly chanted his name.
They also shouted for one more year from junior quarterback Wilson, who was 28-for-45 for 275 yards passing and added 41 rushing yards. Wilson, whos planning to play baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization for the second straight summer, hasnt said whether hes returning to N.C. State for next season.
He consistently moved the ball with his feet and arm and erased the unpleasant memories of the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl, when a knee injury kept him out of the second half of a loss to Rutgers. He did not discuss a timetable for his decision on his future.
Playing for Coach OBrien and playing for N.C. State, whether I come back or not, has been a great opportunity and a great blessing, Wilson said.
Although there wasnt necessarily an individual standout on N.C. States defense, that unit played the most important role in the win. In its last two games of the regular season, the Wolfpack had allowed more than 400 passing yards to North Carolina and Maryland.
OBrien went into the bowl season determined to get that problem corrected. N.C. State found the answer with a cover-four zone in the secondary that it had used only sparingly during the regular season.
We had a month to prepare for them, said senior linebacker Nate Irving, so wed seen through film study how cover-four was going to work for us.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith completed 22 passes in 39 attempts, but was intercepted by safety Brandan Bishop with the outcome still in doubt in the fourth quarter and was held to 196 passing yards. N.C. States defenders did a better job preventing yards after the catch on short passes as freshman cornerback David Amerson made a team-leading seven tackles.
The lone score for the Mountaineers (9-4) tied the game at 7-7, as Stedman Bailey wrestled a 32-yard touchdown pass away from Amerson with 2 minutes, 10 seconds left in the second quarter.
But N.C. State regained the lead for good on a 45-yard Josh Czajkowski field goal with 26 seconds left in the first half. Czajkowski added field goals of 38 and 40 yards to extend the lead to 16-7 in the third quarter, tying the school season record of 20 field goals set by Marc Primanti in 1996.
Going out winning is great, Czajkowski said, because we havent done this for a long time.
N.C. State forced all five turnovers in the second half, took advantage of a muffed punt for the winning score. Taylor Gentry recovered, and Wilson scrambled wildly before finding senior Jarvis Williams for a 7-yard scoring pass and the clinching score in Williams hometown.
As seniors such as Williams, Czajkowski and Irving departed the program, some of them were looking ahead to N.C. States future. Irving talked about setting up the 2011 team to win even more games.
And OBrien is looking forward to the release of the final polls after the 2010 BCS championship game.
Any time you can knock somebody out of the top 25, somebody else has to go back in it, OBrien said, so I think we did enough on TV tonight that we might attract enough votes. I think this team is deserving to be a top-25 team at the end of the year.
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