MORGANTOWN - While West Virginia generally looks upon the Champs Sports Bowl as a consolation prize, for N.C. State it is a breakthrough of sorts.
The Wolfpack (8-4) will play No. 22 West Virginia (9-3) in the Dec. 28 game in Orlando, Fla. This is the ninth straight bowl for WVU, but for N.C. State it is just the second in four seasons under coach Tom O'Brien, and the highest profile bowl game for the school since it faced Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl following the 2002 season.
N.C. State's only other bowl appearance under O'Brien was a loss to Rutgers in the 2008 Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala. The only other bowls since that 2002 season were the 2003 Tangerine Bowl and the 2005 Meineke Car Care Bowl. That Tangerine Bowl was the forerunner to the current Champs Sports Bowl.
"It's a great challenge for us,'' O'Brien said Sunday night when the matchup was announced. "We're coming to Orlando looking to enjoy ourselves, but most of all to win a football game.''
In N.C. State, West Virginia will face a pass-oriented team that began the season 4-0, but then won consecutive games only once over the last two months of the season. The teams have two common opponents in Cincinnati and Maryland. The Wolfpack beat Cincinnati 30-19 at home on Sept. 16 and lost 38-31 at Maryland in the regular-season finale Nov. 27. That loss to the Terps cost N.C. State a spot in the ACC championship game, which went to a Florida State team the Wolfpack beat 28-24.
West Virginia beat both Cincinnati (37-10) and Maryland (31-17) at home.
The Wolfpack features a pass-first offense led by 5-foot-11, 200-pound junior quarterback Russell Wilson, who split his time between the school's football and baseball teams until this summer. That's when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies and signed, playing a month in the minors before returning to school and football.
"I think it's going to be a great game, us against West Virginia,'' Wilson said Sunday.
This season, Wilson completed 280-of-482 passes for 3,288 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He was also the team's No. 2 rusher with 129 carries for 394 yards (a team-best 607 before sacks and negative-yardage plays) and a team-high nine touchdowns. He accounted for 3,774 of N.C. State's 4,880 total yards, or 77 percent.
By contrast, WVU sophomore quarterback Geno Smith had the second-best passing performance in school history this season with 219 completions in 333 attempts for 2,567 yards, 23 touchdowns and six interceptions.
As a redshirt freshman in 2008, Wilson was the first freshman ever named the All-ACC quarterback after producing 2,343 total yards. As a sophomore he had 3,287 yards of total offense.
The rest of the Wolfpack offense, though, is suspect. N.C. State ranks No. 93 in the country in rushing at 125 yards per game. Defensively, the Wolfpack is solid against the run, allowing just 113 yards, 12th-best in the country. But opponents are throwing for 227.5 yards per game, which ranks No. 78.
Besides the loss to Maryland, N.C. State also fell to Virginia Tech (41-30) and suffered close losses to East Carolina (33-27 in overtime) and Clemson (14-13). Other than Cincinnati and Florida State, the Wolfpack's other wins were over Western Carolina (48-7), Central Florida (28-21), Georgia Tech (45-28), Boston College (44-17), Wake Forest (38-3) and North Carolina (29-25).
O'Brien, who faced West Virginia when he was the head coach at Boston College from 1997 to 2006, will be going for his 100th career win in the bowl game. O'Brien was 4-4 in eight games against WVU before Boston College left for the ACC in 2005.