ORLANDO, Fla. - That West Virginia's defense carried the Mountaineers wherever they managed to go this season goes without saying.
The fact of the matter is that the offense lagged so far behind for so much of the season that it cost at least part - and perhaps all - of the offensive coaches their jobs.
There is, of course, the possibility that could change tonight when West Virginia faces North Carolina State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Perhaps an offense that began to improve - albeit too little, too late - as the season wound down will send outgoing coordinator Jeff Mullen out with a bang.
But the smart money is on West Virginia's defense needing another clutch performance in order for the No. 22 Mountaineers (9-3) to hold off the Wolfpack (8-4) when the game kicks off at 6:30 p.m. at Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium. The game will be televised by ESPN.
It's not going to be easy, though, because N.C. State has a mobile and accomplished quarterback in junior Russell Wilson, a big group of receivers and will be facing a short-handed WVU secondary.
"It's going to be a challenge, there's no question about that,'' West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "But I think our kids like challenges. And they've responded pretty well to the ones we've had.''
Indeed, a West Virginia defense that was expected to be one of the best in the school's history has lived up to the billing this season. The Mountaineers are the only team in the country this year that never gave up more than 21 points. They finished the regular season ranked third in the nation in total defense, second in scoring and rushing defense, 11th in pass defense and third in sacks.
But those three challenges - Wilson, the size of his receivers and two missing defensive backs - complicate matters for West Virginia in tonight's game, particularly where stopping N.C. State's 19th-ranked passing attack is concerned. Only seven teams in the country threw more passes than did the Wolfpack this season and, if anything, they are likely to crank up the rate of throws tonight.
It all starts with Wilson, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound part-time professional baseball player who led the ACC in passing yards, total offense and touchdowns and threw for 300 or more yards eight times in 12 games. What compounds matters is he was also N.C. State's leading rusher by far before sacks are subtracted.
"There are probably guys out there with better arms. There are probably guys out there who run better,'' said West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, who compared Wilson to Cincinnati's Zach Collaros. "But he moves the chains. He gets it done.''
"He's a great player and our kids are well aware of his ability,'' Casteel said. "And that's obviously going to be a big key in the game, how we're able to play against him and how many plays he's able to make against our kids. He's the kind of kid who obviously throws the ball very well and is also able to make plays with his feet. Every film you turn on, that's obvious. So it's a challenge for us.''
Equally as challenging is facing Wilson and that passing attack without starting cornerback Brandon Hogan, who is out with a knee injury, and safety Eain Smith, one of three Mountaineers who were ruled academically ineligible at the end of the semester.
Smith wasn't a starter, but easily could be considered one because he was a regular in WVU's third-down packages. Those packages figure to be on the field a lot tonight, given that the Wolfpack throws the ball so much (an average of more than 41 times per game) that every down seems like third down.