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December 29, 2008
You don't have to be an expert to figure out why North Carolina State and Rutgers closed the regular season as two of the nation's hottest teams.
Just look at the statistics of their respective quarterbacks.
North Carolina State's Russell Wilson and Rutgers' Mike Teel may not have ended the year as All-Americans, but they played at that kind of level in the second half of the season. Now that neither quarterback has played in more than 3? weeks, Wilson and Teel face the challenge of maintaining their late-season momentum in Monday's Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
"They certainly do [get rusty], and that's something you have to be concerned with," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said. "Offensively, the timing in the passing game ? once you're in a season and in a groove and you're working week in and week out, those things take care of themselves. But certainly the biggest concern in a bowl game is, No. 1, the passing game on offense."
If Wilson and Teel can shake off the rust early, this game could turn into a shootout. Wilson has thrown eight touchdown passes and run for two scores without being intercepted during N.C. State's four-game winning streak. Teel has thrown 20 touchdown passes and only five interceptions while helping Rutgers win six in a row.
Teel and Wilson closed the season on a similar rush, though they have little else in common. Wilson is a redshirt freshman, while Teel is a fifth-year senior. Wilson relies on his mobility; Teel is more of a dropback passer. Wilson dealt with injuries and Teel struggled with interceptions early in the season.
While most fans outside the Atlantic Coast Conference had never heard of Wilson before this season, Teel already had spent a couple of seasons in the spotlight. After helping Rutgers win bowl games in each of the past two seasons, Teel was supposed to have a breakthrough season this fall while helping the Scarlet Knights overcome the loss of star running back Ray Rice to the NFL.
It didn't work out that way ? at least not at first.
Rutgers lost five of its first six games, with Teel throwing seven interceptions and only three touchdown passes during that stretch. He even threw a punch at teammate Glen Lee in the closing seconds of a 23-21 loss to Navy in the third game of the season. Teel couldn't go anywhere around campus without hearing criticism.
"It's easy to be a leader when things are going well and you're winning football games," Teel said. "When fans are booing you and people are saying they should make a change and you can't go to class without someone making a comment, that's when you learn what it takes to be a leader."
Eventually, Teel showed he had what it took.
The turning point came Oct. 25 at Pittsburgh. Rutgers entered with a 2-5 record, while Pitt was ranked 17th in the nation. Teel threw a school-record six touchdown passes against the nation's 10th-ranked pass defense to lead Rutgers to a 54-34 win that marked its first road victory over a ranked team in two decades.
Rutgers hasn't lost since.
Teel closed the regular season by breaking his own single-game record and tying a Big East mark with seven touchdown passes while throwing for 447 yards in a 63-14 demolition of Louisville. He has thrown for 1,737 yards in the past five games.
The dramatic turn of events may have stunned the rest of the Big East, but it didn't surprise Teel.
"I imagined it because I expected it from the start, not only of myself but the entire offense as a unit," Teel said.
Wilson also had to deal with plenty of adversity early in the season. He started the Wolfpack's season opener against South Carolina, but suffered a concussion against the Gamecocks. Wilson wasn't merely concerned about his own health; his father suffered a stroke in early August.
"It was a little bit of a distraction, but at the same time it was motivation," Wilson said. "I realized my dad had been through so much in his lifetime. He's been through so much in the past seven or eight months. I realized there's a lot more to life than just football and more than just sports.
"I had to find motivation. I had to have a reason to work hard every day. Every rep, I had to go 100 percent. That's the mind-set I've had with my ability to push myself throughout practice, through games, in the classroom and in the community here in Raleigh. I want to do what my father would [want me] to."
Wilson pushed himself by relying on a quote he first heard from his father: "There's a king in every crowd." He has performed royally in the second half of the season.
Three weeks after getting carted off the field against South Carolina, Wilson rallied the Wolfpack to an overtime victory over previously unbeaten East Carolina. He closed the season by leading N.C. State to consecutive victories over Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina and Miami.
Of course, he may not have delivered the best comeback in his family. Wilson's father, Harrison Wilson III, has improved to the point that he attended the Wolfpack's last three regular-season games. But even when his dad wasn't watching him, Wilson always made sure to follow the lessons his father had taught him.
"Whether it's in sports and you have scouts watching you or other teams watching you, don't take a rep off," Wilson said. "You never know when it could be your last time. In life, there's a king in every crowd. My king's Christ, and God helps me get through things and understand things I'm doing right and the things I'm doing wrong. Whatever you do in life, someone's always watching."
A model of consistency, Wilson has thrown two touchdown passes without an interception in each of the Wolfpack's past six games. He has 16 touchdown passes and one interception this season and hasn't been picked off in his past 226 pass attempts.
"He just has a level of coolness about him," said North Carolina free safety Deunta Williams, whose team lost 41-10 to N.C. State on Nov. 22. "He doesn't have a rush to him. I saw him in the Boston College game [a 38-31 Wolfpack loss] when they were trying to win the game, and he had some urgency about him then. But in our game, he was just cool, calm and collected.
"When we brought pressure to him, he just took it and delivered the ball whenever he needed to do it. He was really calm and collected. His composure was so good."
Wilson will need to maintain that demeanor Monday as he attempts to spoil the finish of Teel's comeback story.
Who has the edge?
N.C. State run offense vs. Rutgers run defense
N.C. State pass offense vs. Rutgers pass defense
Rutgers run offense vs. N.C. State run defense
Rutgers pass offense vs. N.C. State pass defense
N.C. State special teams vs. Rutgers special teams
N.C. State coaches vs. Rutgers coaches
X-factor: Although we just mentioned O'Brien's successful bowl record, he won all those games while at Boston College. N.C. State didn't reach the postseason in the past two seasons and is relying on a redshirt freshman quarterback with no bowl experience. Rutgers has won bowl games each of the past two years with Teel running the offense. Rutgers' postseason experience just might make the difference.
North Carolina State will win if: The Wolfpack's best chance to neutralize Teel and Britt is to keep them off the field. N.C. State has possessed the ball more than its opponent in four of its past five games. The Wolfpack need to run the ball effectively and limit Teel's opportunities as much as possible.
Rutgers will win if: Wilson's 16-1 touchdown-interception ratio shows how good he is as a passer, but he's perhaps more dangerous as a runner. Even though Wilson completed less than half his pass attempts against Wake Forest and Miami, his legs helped the Wolfpack win both those games. The Scarlet Knights must contain Wilson's running ability as much as possible and dare him to beat them by throwing the ball. And it goes without saying that Teel must avoid the mistakes that haunted him in the first half of the season.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.