Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
The success swirling around the East Carolina football team may be taking some by surprise, but not North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien. During the offseason, he sensed the Pirates "felt this was going to be their year."
After watching game film to prepare for Saturday's noon game against No. 15-ranked ECU, O'Brien realized it's practically the same team the Wolfpack beat a year ago, 34-20.
"They're all a year older, there's a lot of two and three-year veterans that are playing," O'Brien said. "They've grown as a football program. ... This is their year. ... They're deserving of every ranking they have, and they're on their way to being the BCS buster this year."
The heavyweights of Conference USA have already knocked off Virginia Tech and will make it difficult for NC State to make a similar turnaround like it did in 2007, when the Wolfpack's win over ECU was a springboard to a four-game winning streak. So far, NC State hasn't scored an offensive touchdown against an FBS opponent. There are just too many injuries to key players to think the offense will make a quantum leap anytime soon.
It will help, though, that quarterback Russell Wilson will be playing his second game after suffering a severe concussion in the season opener.
"We expect to see some improvement out of him and that will help us as the offense moves on," O'Brien said.
ECU's quarterback, Patrick Pinkney, will be a challenge for even this defense to contain. After being used in a two-quarterback system in 2007 with Rob Kass, Pinkney separated himself this spring and is now running the offense. Pinkney's 19-of-23 passing performance against Virginia Tech in the season opener established a new school single-game record for completion percentage.
"He's the most improved player from a year ago," O'Brien said. "When we played them a year ago, he may have played one series and didn't play much at all. ... He's done a great job passing the ball. I don't think he had that reputation a year ago. You look at what he's done in the pocket, throwing the football, he can extend plays if the protection breaks down, and he can certainly pull the ball down and run with it. He's the guy their whole off centers around, and he's the guy you have to certainly account for every play on defense."
One highlight for the Wolfpack's offense has been Andre Brown, one of the few playmakers who is finally healthy. He is averaging 69.3 yards per carry and happens to be from Greenville, N.C., home of the Pirates.
"He's a much more powerful runner, a much more decisive runner, heading toward the goal line, not as much bouncing, running to the outside, trying to outrun everybody," O'Brien said. "He understands we have to head North and South, and soon enough in the game those big play opportunities will come."
NC State would be fortunate if a few of them came on Saturday against this year's "BCS busters."