Champs Sports Bowl preview: West Virginia-NC State

Tuesday evening’s Champs Sports Bowl matchup between West Virginia and NC State in Orlando, Fla., features two teams that had golden opportunities to earn BCS berths. Still, the Mountaineers have a chance to win 10 games for only the seventh time in school history. And NC State is looking to finish the season on a high note and bounce back from a disappointing loss to Maryland in the regular-season finale — a defeat that knocked the squad out of a spot in the ACC title game.

Here’s a closer look at the contest between the Big East’s Mountaineers and the Wolfpack of the ACC.

West Virginia (9-3, 5-2 Big East): The Mountaineers are bowling for the ninth year in a row, but there has to be some tension and distractions surrounding the program after a pretty eventful last month. The team will play its first game since it was announced that head coach Bill Stewart will be replaced by new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen in 2012, and the Mountaineers will also play without starting center Joe Madsen and reserve defenders Eain Smith and Josh Taylor as they did not meet NCAA eligibility requirements. In addition, the team’s best cornerback, Brandon Hogan, will miss the game due to injury.

Noel DevineICONNoel Devine didn't have a standout senior year, but he remains a threat for West Virginia.

Running back Noel Devine has not had the standout senior year everyone had expected, but he still recorded 884 yards on the ground and six touchdowns, and he remains a threat to score anytime he touches the football. Receiver Jock Sanders, who set a school record with 201 career receptions, leads the team with 64 catches for 670 yards and four touchdowns, and his streak of 40 straight games with a reception tied a school record.

Despite being only a sophomore, Geno Smith had control of this offense from the start of the season. The 6-3, 210-pounder completed nearly 66 percent of his passes while tossing 23 touchdowns against just 6 interceptions. He will have a tough test against a Wolfpack defense that is much improved from the struggling unit of ’09. The return to health of senior linebacker Nate Irving, who was a first-team All-ACC pick after making 93 total tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss, really boosted the unit.

Keep an eye on: DE Bruce Irvin. He leads the Big East and ranks fourth in the nation in sacks with 12 — extremely impressive considering he plays primarily on third down. He will be critical in containing mobile NC State quarterback Russell Wilson when he’s looking to move out of the pocket. In addition, the Mountaineers could be blitzing more with Hogan not on the field.

NC State (8-4, 5-3 ACC): There’s no question that the key to this game for the Wolfpack is the aerial attack led by the junior Wilson, who led the ACC with 307 yards of total offense per game this season. The Wolfpack averaged nearly 282 yards through the air — best in the ACC. But the NC State receivers haven’t been able to hold onto the football consistently all year, which is a problem especially when the rushing attack can’t be relied upon to be productive.

The Mountaineers have one of the best defenses in the country, ranking No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 2 in rushing defense and No. 3 in total defense. Even without Hogan, West Virginia — the only team in the nation that hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in any game — remains the stiffest test of the year for Wilson, who could be playing his last game of his college career.

As stated earlier, the Wolfpack defense has played much better in 2010, particularly the front seven in stopping the run. The unit has been susceptible to the big play, though, so Devine, Sanders and Tavon Austin could find open field aplenty at times.

The bottom line

Russell WilsonICONCan NC State's offensive line keep Russell Wilson upright for four quarters?

With the distraction of the Holgorsen hire, will Stewart’s players rally around him and play hard under these unusual circumstances? Because this is mostly a veteran group, I think they leave the off-the-field issues for the administration and play loose. Wilson has been sacked 34 times this year, and West Virginia has run the quarterback into the ground on 40 occasions this season. I think the NC State offensive line is overmatched and the Mountaineers have one too many big plays, giving Stewart a reason to smile in an otherwise uncomfortable offseason.


• This is NC State’s 25th postseason appearance, and the school owns a 12-11-1 mark in bowl games. West Virginia is making its 30th postseason appearance and owns a 13-16 record.

• West Virginia and NC State have met in bowl games on two previous occasions. The Wolfpack defeated the Mountaineers 49-13 in the 1972 Peach Bowl, while the Mountaineers gained revenge in the 1976 game in Atlanta by knocking off the Wolfpack 13-10.

• Common foes: Both teams have faced Cincinnati and Maryland this season. West Virginia defeated Maryland 31-17 on Sept. 18 and downed Cincinnati 37-10 on Nov. 13. Meanwhile, NC State beat Cincinnati 30-19 on Sept. 16 but lost to Maryland 38-31 on Nov. 27.

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