Wolfpack off to fast start|Turnovers key to N.C. State success

Published 4:10 pm Tuesday, September 14, 2010

By By JOEDY McCREARY, AP Sports Writer
AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH — North Carolina State isn’t only taking care of the ball. The Wolfpack are taking it away, too.
The Atlantic Coast Conference leaders in turnover margin have recovered three fumbles, intercepted three passes and haven’t turned the ball over. Through two games, they’re almost halfway to the 14 takeaways last year’s group had in all of 2009.
That’s a big reason why the Wolfpack (2-0) are unbeaten heading into this week’s game against Cincinnati (1-1), and are off to their best start since 2002.
N.C. State forced five turnovers, recovering a key fumble deep inside Wolfpack territory with less than a minute left, to preserve last week’s 28-21 victory at Central Florida. C.J. Wilson took one interception back 43 yards for a touchdown, and breakout linebacker Audie Cole also picked off a pass as part of his 12-tackle performance.
‘‘I think we had to find out exactly who and what we were on defense,’’ coach Tom O’Brien said Monday. ‘‘Certainly, winning the football game on defense, the way that it was won, was a great confidence-builder for the defense. That’s one thing that they needed on defense, to play with some confidence, especially the young kids.’’
That improvement on defense — and, of course, a navigable early schedule with games against Western Carolina and Central Florida — is a big reason why the Wolfpack are off to a strong start.
N.C. State leads the ACC in total defense, allowing an average of 248 1/2 yards. Only Boston College (eight) has more takeaways than the Wolfpack’s six.
That’s led to a minor role reversal for N.C. State, which at times last year relied on dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson and his set of big-play receivers to outscore and outgain teams. Wilson was just 10 for 30 for 105 yards while the offense gained just 65 of its 239 total yards in the second half against UCF.
‘‘Everything clicked, and everybody did their job and got it done,’’ defensive end Jeff Rieskamp said. ‘‘The defense this week played really good. That’s not to say the offense isn’t going to have to pick us up at some point during the year.’’
But it does make for welcome news for a defensive unit that last year was beleaguered by injuries and inexperience. With linebacker Nate Irving out for all of 2009 following a near-fatal car crash, the Wolfpack ranked in the bottom half of the league, allowing more than 361 total yards per game.
The newest face — blitz-happy linebackers coach Jon Tenuta — has had plenty to do with their improvement.
‘‘They’re a little different, and I think the hiring of (Tenuta) and the wealth of knowledge that he brings, his background’’ explains the change, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. ‘‘They’re going to challenge us, not only scheme-wise, but from a mentality and a physicality as well.’’
Tenuta — a coaching vagabond whose stops included Georgia Tech and Notre Dame — has helped organize and streamline the schemes that defensive coordinator Mike Archer has installed, O’Brien said.
‘‘I don’t think the defense is a lot different in regular defense than it was a year ago,’’ O’Brien said. ‘‘It may be tying the defense together, the organization of it. A lot of the things we’re doing, we’ve done before. There’s not a lot of new blitzes that we have done.
‘‘Tying things together, and making it a package instead of just calling blitzes, I think that’s part of the package he brought with him,’’ he added.
One of the top challenges this season, O’Brien said, was ‘‘to get us off the field on third down’’ after a 2009 season in which the Wolfpack ranked 10th in the ACC by allowing opponents to convert nearly 43 percent of their third-down chances.
It’s working: N.C. State leads the league in that stat, allowing a 24 percent conversion rate.
‘‘We’re playing the same type of personnel, but the organization of that is a much better organized structured package than we were a year ago as far as the blitz goes,’’ O’Brien said.
‘‘There’s a rhyme and a reason to why you do things,’’ he added. ‘‘The kids are understanding why they’re doing things.’’