RALEIGH -- Last year, after a big win over Pittsburgh, N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien was basically despondent, ripping his team in the postgame press conference and lamenting, more or less, that the Wolfpack wouldn’t win many games playing like that.
He was right. N.C. State was 3-1 at that point and went 2-6 the rest of the way for its third straight losing record under O’Brien.
So what did O’Brien say after Thursday’s resounding 30-17 win over Cincinnati? “I don’t know what kind of football team we have.” That raises the issue whether this was a step in the right direction for the 3-0 Wolfpack or whether O’Brien once again saw warning signs in the performance.
“I don’t know what to say,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes we look real good. Sometimes we look real bad. Bottom line, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
(I should note here for the record that I wrote basically the opposite of O’Brien’s comments after the Pittsburgh game, that O’Brien was underplaying a good performance to keep his team from getting too confident. Needless to say, I should have taken him at face value.)
The good news for the Wolfpack is that Thursday’s win offered much more hope than the Pittsburgh win last season, even against a much less powerful opponent. (Needless to say, Cincinnati will not be repeating as Big East champions.)
Russell Wilson looked the best he has this season. Mustafa Greene looks like the answer at running back, at least for the moment, after Dean Haynes was stricken with a bad case of fumblitis. And the defense, despite two glaring coverage breakdowns, applied pressure with regularity and ferocity against dangerously versatile Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros.
Perhaps more important, the Wolfpack’s young defensive backs and linebackers, so overwhelmed last season, are looking more like ACC players. O’Brien noticed that, at least, in Thursday’s performance.
“We’re a better football team,” O’Brien said. “We’ve grown up. We’ve matured. A lot of things that got us down before don’t keep us down.”
All told, N.C. State has taken care of business against three unimpressive opponents, albeit under difficult circumstances with the five-day turnaround between the Central Florida game and the Cincinnati game. That alone is a step in the right direction, and with should-win games at East Carolina, at home against Wake Forest and at Maryland, the Wolfpack is halfway to a bowl.
If all goes right from here, anyway.
“This year, we still have a lot more work to do,” Wilson said. “We just have to be confident and come out with a swagger every single day in practice. We have a lot of talent and a lot of potential but we have to keep working on it and get better.”