I had this game handicapped in June. Considering what happened last year in Columbia, I figured not even an improved N.C. State team could make up 34 points.
Then as July turned into August, and the Gamecocks kept losing defensive linemen to suspension, I became a little less certain. Say what you will about the skill and promise of USC’s backup d-linemen, but you don’t take two starters off your front four without feeling it.
Look for State to pound the ball between the tackles, and have some success doing it. The ‘Pack might not break off any 50- or 60-yard runs, but they will move the sticks and take time off the clock – the kind of game Tom O’Brien loves.
At quarterback, O’Brien has a guy who knows all about managing a game. Russell Wilson hasn’t throw an interception since September – a streak of 249 consecutive passes that is the longest in the country.
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Stephen Garcia’s has gone seven passes without an interception, dating to the second quarter of the Outback Bowl. He was benched in the second half after losing four turnovers (three picks, one fumble) in the first half.
So who would you give the edge to at quarterback – the reigning ACC offensive player of the year or the guy given to tucking and running at the first sign of distress?
Look, this is not meant to be a Garcia piñata party. I think he’s going to be better this season, and he can start in Raleigh by staying in the pocket a little longer and letting his receivers get to their spots.
State will get its sacks. Ends Willie Young and Shea McKeen (remember him?) lead an all-senior line that roughed up Tommy Beecher last year. Better that Garcia take a sack than sail one into the arms of a State d-back.
Like everyone else, I’m interested in seeing how USC’s new-look rushing attack fares. Most signs from the August scrimmages point to the Gamecocks having an honest-to-goodness run game.
And that’s where they win this game – on tough runs by Brian Maddox interspersed with cutbacks from Jarvis Giles, who has the best burst of any USC back I’ve covered in eight seasons. Throw in a couple of drive-extending completions to TE Weslye Saunders and just enough stops on defense, and you have the makings of the Gamecocks’ 10th consecutive win in a season-opener.
I don’t feel as confident about the pick as I did in June, but I’m sticking with it:
USC 24, N.C. STATE 20.