September 8, 2003 RALEIGH Throughout the preseason, whenever anyone asked Philip Rivers about how N.C. State would handle the pressure building up to the biggest game of the year (Ohio State), he always had the same explanation: There's other business to take care of first. Rivers frequently mentioned that he and his Wolfpack teammates had experienced some great wins two victories over Florida State and bowl wins over Minnesota and Notre Dame but that there always have been slip-ups along the way. Think about the consecutive losses last year to Georgia Tech, Maryland and Virginia. It was those losses that prevented the Pack from finishing better than fourth under Chuck Amato for the first time. We have had some successful seasons, but if you look at those bumps in the road, they eat at you, Rivers said. And they should. Now, the Wolfpack has a new entry on that list of hard-to-figure slip-ups: a 38-24 loss at Wake Forest. The loss took much of the luster off the matchup with the Buckeyes, who faced their own struggles heading into the game. Ohio State is scrambling to get over the Maurice Clarett situation and barely squeaked by in its first two games of the season. To be honest, State was never really in the game against Wake Forest. After winning the toss and boldly electing to receive, the Demon Deacons took the ball and rammed it straight down the Wolfpack's throats. They were ahead 28-3 in the second quarter. Players and coaches alike insisted they weren't looking ahead. After all, Amato prohibited any talk of anyone but the next opponent on the schedule throughout the preseason. But that insistence and Amato's threats to his players about answering questions and the media about asking them may have played to the Deacons' favor. Wake coach Jim Grobe found a way to turn Amato's ploy against the Wolfpack, sounding offended when he said the inference was that all State had to do was pay attention and the game shouldn't be any problem. The sad truth is, if Amato hadn't made such a deal about asking only questions about Western Carolina in the preseason, chances are that no one would have asked many questions about Ohio State. And so what if they did? All the Wolfpack players and coaches had to do was say, We have other business to take care of first. And that's something they didn't do.
Three Injuries Disrupted Offense One of the reasons the Wolfpack's offense was unproductive in the first half, when State had to settle for one field goal before Rivers led the team on a late touchdown drive, was the injury factor or, in some cases, the under-reported injury factor. By that point everyone knew about the odd (nerve-related) arm and hand problems of hard-nosed left tackle Chris Colmer, but star tailback T.A. McLendon and productive wide receiver Sterling Hicks surprisingly also missed the game against the Demon Deacons. McLendon strained the patella tendon in his knee in the season opener against Western Carolina, but he was not listed on the Monday injury report. He always says he's banged up after a game, and as a result the training staff doesn't always take him very seriously. According to Amato, McLendon tweaked that injury on the Wednesday before the Wake game when he slipped on the floor of the lounge at the posh new operations center. Most reporters and fans had no idea of the severity of the injury until they saw McLendon on the sidelines in Winston-Salem in street clothes. After all, McLendon looked fine to the reporters who talked with him on Wednesday morning. Practice was cut short by a thunderstorm on Thursday, so Amato wasn't available to talk to reporters. He may or may not have mentioned it then, since the school's new policy is to talk about football injuries only on Mondays and Fridays. McLendon's name was on the updated list Friday, sending beat writers scurrying to find out what was up. Most mentioned it in their game previews, but no one knew how bad it was. The injury to Colmer, the Pack's best lineman on either side of the ball, is becoming more troubling with each passing day. Colmer spoke of his ailment in the preseason as if it were a mosquito bite, but Amato uncharacteristically showed his concern about it from the very beginning. The brachial plexus injury prevented Colmer from playing in the first two games this fall and was expected to keep him out against the Buckeyes as well. His condition is essentially a nerve injury that zaps much of the strength from the affected shoulder, arm and hand. The second-team All-ACC tackle has been to several doctors who have treated similar injuries, but no one has found a way to fix it. Hicks' injury also was a bit of a surprise. He was hurt against Western Carolina, too, but it didn't keep him from being the team's leading receiver, with seven catches for 110 yards. But he showed up to practice in a cast during the week and was listed as questionable on the Friday report.
Questionable Start For Mazzone The Wolfpack kept most of its playbook closed in the season-opening victory over Western Carolina, but the game against Wake Forest was supposed to be the real debut for new offensive guru Noel Mazzone, Amato's third coordinator on that side in four years. It wasn't impressive. After the Pack's first drive ended with a batted-ball interception, Mazzone seemed intent on establishing the running game with senior Cotra Jackson and junior Josh Brown. Bad idea: NCSU's run-blocking was shaky in the absence of Colmer, and Jackson (12 carries for 24 yards) simply lacks the speed to be the team's primary tailback against strong opponents. Brown rushed twice for four yards. After a couple of Wake Forest defenders ran receiver Jerricho Cotchery out of bounds on a 69-yard pass from Rivers on NCSU's second drive, the Wolfpack had the ball on the Deacons' three-yard line. Mazzone sent out Brown to run up the middle on a dive, advancing the ball to the one. But an illegal motion penalty sent the Pack back, and Rivers missed two passes to the end zone. The Wolfpack had to settle for an Adam Kiker 23-yard field goal. On the next two possessions, Mazzone gave the ball to Jackson, the fifth-year player who is making his return after sitting out last year, with no success at all. The first of those possessions lasted three plays, the second four. In the stands, those Wolfpack fans who follow recruiting closely mourned the losses of 2003 tailback signees Darrell Blackman and Brian Dennison to subpar academics. Blackman, in particular, provides exactly the kind of speed dimension the Pack will miss whenever McLendon is on the sidelines. Only later did Mazzone go heavily to the swing pass, a mainstay of the offense under former coordinators Norm Chow and Marty Galbraith. Sensational newcomer Tramain Hall looked particularly effective in that role, both against the Deacons and a week before in his long-awaited debut against Western Carolina. By that time in the Wake game, however, the Wolfpack was trailing 28-3.
Rivers Continues Winning Ways Having said all the negative about the Wolfpack, there is still one shining star: Rivers. He was practically flawless through two games, and he's only a few yards away from becoming the ACC's all-time leading passer. Rivers threw three interceptions along with his six touchdown passes, but he was on the mark with just about every pass. He completed 64 of his 79 attempts, a clip of just under 85 percent. His 753 passing yards left him only 93 yards short of Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke on the ACC's career passing yards list. His six touchdowns so far this year left him 12 shy of Weinke's career record of 79. Unfortunately, losing to the Deacons may have killed Rivers' Heisman hopes. The Wake Forest fans at Groves Stadium certainly were thinking along those lines, taunting him with chants of No more Heisman! No more Heisman! Rivers' numbers against the Deacons 38 of 49 for a career-high 433 yards were still impressive, though, and he could return to the top of some Heisman lists with a great performance on national television against the Buckeyes. If that doesn't happen, Rivers may have to settle for getting more Heisman votes than any other player in N.C. State history. That's a distinction currently owned by running back Ted Brown, who finished fourth in the voting in 1978.