ORLANDO, Fla. — Moments after one of the biggest N.C. State victories in recent memory, coach Tom O'Brien 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 O'Brien 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 the 2002 season.
"Maybe someone will see fit to put us in the top 25," O'Brien said, "and it will be a great step forward for next year."
O'Brien's job security seemed tenuous entering the season after three straight injury-filled, losing seasons with the Wolfpack. But after the Wolfpack's 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, who is planning to play baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization for the second straight summer, hasn't said whether he's 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 time-table for a decision on his future.
"Playing for Coach O'Brien 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 wasn't necessarily an individual standout on N.C. State's 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.
O'Brien 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," senior linebacker Nate Irving said, "so we'd 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. State's 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 touchdown for the Mountaineers (9-4) tied the score 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 haven't done this for a long time."
N.C. State forced all five turnovers in the second half, taking 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. State's future. Irving talked about setting up the 2011 team to win even more games.
And O'Brien is looking forward to the release of the final polls after the Jan. 10 BCS championship game.
"Any time you can knock somebody out of the top 25, somebody else has to go back in it," O'Brien 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."
N.C. State 23, West Virginia 7
NCS--Greene 16 pass from R. Wilson (Czajkowski kick), 1:37.
WVU--Bailey 32 pass from G. Smith (Bitancurt kick), 2:10. NCS--FG Czajkowski 45, :26.
NCS--FG Czajkowski 38, 6:05. NCS--FG Czajkowski 40, 1:50.
NCS--Williams 7 pass from R. Wilson (Czajkowski kick), 3:55.
Time of possession
RUSHING--West Virginia, G. Smith 12-59, Devine 8-50, Sanders 1-17, Austin 1-8, Alston 2-6, Team 1-(minus 10). N.C. State, Washington 18-62, R. Wilson 14-41, Greene 3-13, Tedder 1-(minus 13).
PASSING--West Virginia, G. Smith 22-39-1-196. N.C. State, R. Wilson 28-45-0-275.
RECEIVING--West Virginia, Sanders 5-58, Austin 5-30, Bailey 4-61, Devine 4-21, Woods 2-14, Alston 2-12. N.C. State, Williams 6-77, Davis 5-68, Spencer 3-44, Bryan 3-25, T.Gentry 2-14, M. Carter 2-11, Graham 2-7, Washington 2-4, Greene 1-16, Howard 1-5, J. Smith 1-4.
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