Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
For two consecutive seasons, injuries have been the story of NC State football under Tom O'Brien, and the Papajohns.com Bowl was a microcosm of that frustration.
Quarterback Russell Wilson, arguably the most valuable player on NC State's roster and the best quarterback in the ACC, sprained his knee in the first half of a 29-23 loss to Rutgers, and NC State fans once again were left to wonder what might have been.
Those who have been paying attention to NC State this season know how valuable Wilson was to his team -- he was the catalyst behind the Wolfpack's remarkable second-half surge -- but football fans catching him for the first time witnessed the dramatic drop-off in NC State's offense without him. (Mike Glennon should help the position's depth next year).
Wilson entered the bowl game having thrown 226 passes without an interception. His backups, Harrison Beck and Daniel Evans, combined to throw three interceptions in the second half of the Papajohns.com Bowl.
It's been a long season for Wilson, who began preseason camp as one of five quarterbacks competing for the starting job. He was also dealing with the illness of his father, who suffered a stroke in early August. Still, Wilson won the starting job, but suffered a concussion in the first game. He missed the following game and was reinjured while leading the Pack to an upset of East Carolina and missed another game.
This is the trend at NC State.
In 2007, O'Brien's first season in Raleigh, 13 starters missed time because of injuries, including six starters who missed multiple games. This year, Wilson was one of 13 starters again who missed multiple games because of injuries. It's a big reason why NC State started the season 2-4.
A healthy NC State, though, is a very good NC State. Just ask Rutgers, who was trailing 17-6 in the first half after Wilson completed 11 of 23 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. He also finished as the team's leading rusher with eight carries for 46 yards. (And no, that's not necessarily a good thing).
Even when opposing defenses are disciplined against NC State, Wilson gives them headaches with his ability to make things happen with his feet. He is tremendous at improvising outside the pocket, and got his team out of jams against Rutgers on a few third-and-long situations.
NC State's defense did a good job of putting pressure on Mike Teel and mixing up coverages, but Rutgers adjusted in the second half and became more effective as the Wolfpack began to unravel offensively. Even when NC State's defense did its job, though -- like Clem Johnson's interception -- the offense threw it right back to Rutgers.
The four turnovers were the difference in the game, but so was the injury to Wilson. Then again, who knows what might have been?
Had everyone stayed healthy, NC State's entire season might have been different. If Wilson can stay healthy, NC State's 2009 season will be different.