Russell Wilson looked a little more like his old self Thursday night, while the defense is showing some improvement of its own. Now North Carolina State is celebrating its best start to a season since Philip Rivers was at quarterback nearly a decade ago.
Wilson threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns to help the Wolfpack beat Cincinnati 30-19, giving N.C. State its first 3-0 start since 2002.
Jay Smith and Curtis Underwood Jr. had first-half touchdown catches, and Mustafa Greene had a 31-yard scoring run that gave N.C. State a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Wolfpack never trailed thanks to Wilson and a defense that pressured Zach Collaros much of the night, a welcome sign considering the questions that followed both coming into the season.
After Wilson's struggles last week at Central Florida, it seemed he was having some of the struggles coach Tom O'Brien predicted after he missed spring drills while concentrating on playing baseball for the Wolfpack, followed by spending the summer playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies' organization. O'Brien had said it would take time for Wilson to find his game again, though on Thursday night he played with the steady presence that made him an All-Atlantic Coast Conference quarterback as a freshman two seasons ago.
"I think, as we said all along, it was a matter of time," O'Brien said. "It was going to come. We were just hoping sooner rather than later, and tonight was a good night for him to get on."
Wilson completed 26 of 40 passes, including an 8-yard touchdown strike to Taylor Gentry with about 7½ minutes left to make it 30-7. He also ran for 33 yards while evading the rush or keeping plays alive against the Bearcats (1-2), who could only watch as the Wolfpack piled up nearly 500 total yards.
Compare that to last weekend, when Wilson completed just 10 of 30 passes for 105 yards and a touchdown.
"I don't feel like I've really been rusty," he said. "I'm just trying to get into a rhythm, trying to continue to work one play at a time, and I did that tonight a little bit better I feel like. But at the same time, I've got a lot more work to do."
While Wilson had the offense going, N.C. State's defense did its part, too. The Wolfpack finished with five sacks, hurried Collaros four times and notched a fourth-and-1 stop early in the fourth quarter. The only blemish was allowing Cincinnati to score a pair of meaningless touchdowns in the final 6½ minutes.
N.C. State also blocked a punt to set up Gentry's touchdown catch.
Collaros connected with D.J. Woods twice for touchdowns, the first from 68 yards late in the first half. But Cincinnati didn't run a play inside the N.C. State 32 until the final minutes, long after the Wolfpack had the game in hand.
"It's inexcusable," Bearcats coach Butch Jones said. "Our players have got to play better, our coaches have got to coach better, everything in our program."
At least Wilson and his teammates eased O'Brien's mind about playing a nationally televised game with only four days of rest. Not to mention give the much-criticized ACC — which has stumbled in its early nonconference matchups — a needed win against a team picked to tie for second in the Big East.
N.C. State is off to its best start since winning its first nine games behind Rivers, an eventual NFL first-round draft pick.
"It's huge," offensive guard R.J. Mattes said. "I couldn't even tell you the last time State was 3-0. That's crazy."
As for Cincinnati, things won't get any easier. After winning consecutive Big East titles and reaching the Sugar Bowl last season, the Bearcats opened with a loss at Fresno State in which they lost top receiver Vidal Hazelton to a knee injury — and will face No. 7 Oklahoma next weekend.
"Obviously, we weren't expecting these results," Collaros said. "Nobody hopes for this. We're going to see what our team is made out of these next couple of weeks with this adversity. It's going to test our character and test our togetherness, and we've just got to stick together. We'll right the ship."