Wednesday, December 27|
Rivers the key to MicronPC
By Mel Kiper
Thursday, Dec. 28 (7 p.m. ET, TBS)
N.C. State (7-4) vs. Minnesota (6-5)
Both N.C. State and Minnesota came through with monumental victories this season, but they really weren't able to play at a consistent level due to problems on defense.
For N.C. State, Chuck Amato did a great job in his first year directing the Wolfpack program. Early on, they found a way to pull out the close games, winning in overtime against Arkansas State, then enjoying a dramatic comeback victory on the road against Indiana. In that game, freshman signal-caller Philip Rivers showed the mettle that is necessary for future collegiate stardom. He's at his best in clutch situations, benefitting this season from a talented array of skill-positions performers. Leading the way is wideout Koren Robinson, an immensely talented third-year sophomore.
Minnesota also has a brilliant receiver to watch in junior Ron Johnson. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, Johnson has the size and natural pass-receiving skills to present all kinds of problems for opposing cornerbacks. If you are looking for validation, just ask Ohio State's talented junior cornerback Nate Clements. In the Golden Gophers' 29-17 upset of Ohio State at Columbus in mid-October, Johnson got the best of Clements on several occasions, finishing the day with eight catches for 163 yards and one TD.
Heading into Thursday's game, Minnesota has had to deal with off-the-field distractions, while N.C. State has been able to focus solely on game preparation. The two teams appear to be evenly matched on paper. Both have running backs who give their offenses balance, while both defenses often leave a lot to be desired.
For Minnesota, senior defensive end Karon Riley was a sack artist early in the season before his play leveled off. In addition, the linebackers failed to perform up to the level expected, and the injury loss of blue-chip junior cornerback Willie Middlebrooks was huge.
In a flip-a-coin type of matchup like this one, a crafty quarterback like Rivers could be the difference. While he's just a freshman, he's a proven playmaker when the outcome of the game is on the line.