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Return Of Mclendon Upgrades Outlook

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

November 3, 2003 RALEIGH — T.A. McLendon famously declared upon his arrival at N.C. State that his initials stood for “Touchdown Anytime.” This season, however, those initials just as easily could have stood for “Teasing Again.” McLendon, last year's ACC rookie of the year after rushing for 1,101 yards and 18 touchdowns, is a huge part of the Wolfpack offense who has been missing for at least half the season. He missed four games completely with hamstring and knee injuries and played hurt in four other contests. He missed his most recent game after having two arthroscopic knee surgeries in a six-day span, following the Pack's victory over Clemson. As the Wolfpack season hit its stretch run, McLendon was anxious to get back on the field. He actually looked interested in practice before the Virginia game, and his teammates could tell he was itching to play. It probably didn't hurt that the game was part of ABC's national television package, and that it came as some fans began to wonder if their potential dream season would end in the Humanitarian Bowl. “I was tired of sitting out,” McLendon said. He wasn't tired, however, at the end of he game against Virginia. He broke free on a gutsy trap call with 31 seconds remaining and rambled 38 yards for a game-winning touchdown. It capped off a night in which McLendon is believed to have become the first player in N.C. State history to have more than 100 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. He finished with 112 yards on 18 carries and 104 yards on 11 catches against the Cavaliers. Even though Virginia coach Al Groh made the ridiculous assertion that McLendon's presence didn't have much impact on the Wolfpack's running game, it was a key factor in State's most offensively complete performance of the year. Just the threat of having McLendon in the backfield opened up some deep patterns the Wolfpack has been reluctant to try at times this season. Giving senior quarterback Philip Rivers that extra time with a quick fake to McLendon allowed Rivers to throw deep passes to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery and tight end T.J. Williams. On one three-play scoring drive, Rivers stuck the ball in McLendon's gut on all three plays but left it there only once. The other two times he threw passes to Cotchery, including one for a 33-yard touchdown. “Do you think No. 44 is important to this football team?” N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said after the game. And now, McLendon has nearly two weeks to get back to full strength before the Wolfpack's game at Florida State. Line Helped Rivers Earn Award If there was any doubt before the Pack's game against Virginia, there is none now: Rivers should be the ACC's offensive player of the year, and maybe the league's overall player of the year as well. All Rivers did against the Cavaliers, a team he has struggled to perform well against in the pass, was complete his first 17 passes. His only miss of the first half came when he threw the ball away on a swing pattern that wasn't open to kill the clock with two seconds remaining so the Wolfpack could kick a field goal. Rivers ended up throwing four touchdown passes, including a beautiful 75-yarder to Williams and a clutch three-yarder to fellow Alabama native Chance Moyer, a little-used fullback, in the third quarter. The primary competition for the award, reigning ACC player of the year Matt Schaub, had similarly good numbers, throwing four touchdown passes for a school-record 393 yards in the much-hyped showdown between the two best arms in the conference. But Schaub also was involved in two critical mistakes that handed the Wolfpack a pair of touchdowns. The first came early in the game, when the snap from center went over Schaub's head and into the end zone. Wolfpack safety Garland Heath recovered it for State's first touchdown of the day. Later, as Schaub hurriedly tried to move his team down the field with less than 20 seconds remaining in the game, he threw a pass that was easily picked off by Wolfpack nickle back Victor Stephens and returned 26 yards for a touchdown. Rivers was virtually flawless all night, thanks in no small part to the protection of his line, led by junior center Jed Paulsen, senior guard Sean Locklear, sophomore tackle John McKeon, sophomore guard Leroy Harris and — finally, after conditioning problems and the NCAA eligibility complications the Sports Journal warned you about in February — rookie tackle Derek Morris. Virginia never came close to sacking Rivers all night long, forcing him out of the pocket only two or three times. “That was as good protection as I've had since I played here,” Rivers said. “For the most part, I had plenty enough time to throw it and T.A. had enough lanes to get started, and once you get him started …” Schedule Spin Getting Very Old For weeks now, any time Amato has had the opportunity, he's whined about the fact that his team didn't get the open date it wanted the week before the Ohio State game. He made a big deal at the time about the ACC office not honoring State's request to have an open date on Sept. 5 by scheduling the Wolfpack to play its conference opener at Wake Forest that day. The Wolfpack came out flat, played one of its worst games in Amato's tenure and lost 38-24. Now Amato has taken to subtracting that loss when he publicly tries to convince everyone — and maybe even himself — that this isn't such a disappointing season after all. He did it again, in some detail, right after the win over Virginia. “Could you imagine us being 7-2 right now,” Amato said, “with one of those losses being against the defending national champion?” What Amato didn't realize until he was almost done with his little rant was that ACC assistant commissioner Mike Finn, who handles the football schedule for the conference, was standing against a wall about 15 feet away, turning beet red. Amato threw in another little “I'm just kidding” at the end, but it had the sincerity of a political apology. The coach seems to think his team would have had a better chance to beat Wake Forest — the team that may end up whacking two ACC coaches this year — late in the season. That's an assumption he might not make if he ever sees film of how the Demon Deacons picked apart Clemson on the same day the Wolfpack beat Virginia. Basketball Needs Healthy Evtimov The Wolfpack's basketball debut in the Red-White intrasquad scrimmage wasn't particularly encouraging for the fans who think Herb Sendek's team can challenge Duke, Wake Forest and North Carolina for ACC dominance this season. While junior forward Levi Watkins was surprisingly good, scoring 15 points and hitting four three-pointers, the rest of the Wolfpack looked sluggish. Sophomore forward Ilian Evtimov, coming off his reconstructive knee surgery, is obviously still hampered, either by the injury itself or the cumbersome brace he wears on his left knee. He did not take the point position he played so effectively at the end of his freshman season, and the Pack's offense suffered for it. Sendek's team often looked a little too much like the confused team it was at the beginning of last season, dribbling the ball around and waiting until near the end of the shot clock before making a move to the basket. “One thing that really stood out from an offensive standpoint,” Sendek said after the game, “is that everyone had dribble-itis.” The Wolfpack obviously is going to be a perimeter-oriented team, led by first-team All-ACC guard Julius Hodge and the outside shooting of seniors Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherrill. The experience and proven production of that trio sets the Pack apart from most other teams in the conference, and State hopes to create lots of matchup problems for opponents with its smaller, skilled lineups. But if Sendek's team is going to get that third consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Evtimov will have to get a lot more comfortable in his recovery very soon.