RALEIGH -- Any remaining doubt in N.C. State quarterback Russell Wilson’s ability to successfully play two sports was extinguished Saturday night.
Wilson missed spring practice while he played for the Wolfpack baseball team and spent the summer as a minor-league second baseman in the Colorado Rockies’ farm system.
He looked as sharp as ever, though, while dissecting Western Carolina’s secondary in N.C. State’s 48-7, season-opening win at Carter-Finley Stadium. Wilson showed the same pocket presence and passing ability that made him a first-team All-ACC selection in 2008 and the ACC’s touchdown pass leader in 2009.
Wilson threw four touchdown passes – one short of his career high – and finished the night 21-for-31 for 306 yards without an interception. Some of his highlights were spectacular.
When Owen Spencer got open behind the Western Carolina secondary in the second quarter, Wilson delivered a 60-yard pass to set up a touchdown. Under pressure later in the same quarter, Wilson improvised for a Houdini-like shovel pass to freshman tailback Mustafa Greene.
About the only bad moment for N.C. State at quarterback came with 10:17 remaining in the game, when backup Mike Glennon was scrambling to get away from the rush. He was caught from behind at the sideline and suffered what initially was ruled a bruised left knee. Further information about his status wasn’t immediately available.
While Wilson shined, junior T.J. Graham emerged as a possible difference maker in a wide receiving corps that already has two senior standouts in Owen Spencer and Jarvis Williams.
Graham has been one of the ACC’s top kickoff and punt returners for the last two seasons, with a kickoff return for a score in both 2008 and 2009. But his route running and hands weren’t outstanding when he played wide receiver in his first two seasons.
On Saturday, he had his best game yet as a receiver. He caught six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns – all career highs - as Wilson immediately got him the ball.
Graham scored N.C. State’s first touchdown on a 26-yard post route and delivered the Wolfpack’s second score by breaking a tackle and using his sprinter’s speed to cut right to left across the field.
So the passing game, which is supposed to be N.C. State’s strength, was in excellent form. The defense and rushing game, which both were question marks entering the season, were merely adequate.
Western Carolina took the opening kickoff and marched 87 yards in 10 plays, scoring on a 23-yard pass from Zack Jaynes to Deja Alexander. Middle linebacker Nate Irving, who has returned as a team captain and defensive leader after missing all of 2009 with injuries suffered in a car crash, didn’t have much of an impact early.
The Catamounts ran a lot of plays straight up the middle in the first quarter, and Irving didn’t stuff them the way he did as an honorable mention All-ACC selection in 2008. Nonetheless, after that shaky first drive, the defense did settle down to hold Football Championship Subdivision foe Western Carolina – picked eighth in the Southern Conference preseason poll – without a score for the rest of the game.
N.C. State’s running game, featuring redshirt freshman starter Dean Haynes and freshman backup Mustafa Greene, also struggled early. None of N.C. State’s six first-quarter carries was longer than 4 yards.
But Haynes in particular seemed to get more aggressive as the game went on. He finished with 69 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries, including a hard-driving, 20-yard run in the third quarter to set up a score.
Despite the early hiccups, there wasn’t much for N.C. State to complain about in a 41-point win. Most importantly, Wilson – who said before the game that he was in midseason form – didn’t lose his touch while playing all that baseball.
If N.C. State is counting on its passing game, Wilson again appears more than capable of delivering.