RALEIGH, N.C. – Tom O'Brien's first three teams at North Carolina State struggled to find momentum-building wins early and all finished with losing records. Now, with his team off to a rare strong start, the coach is just as curious as everyone else to see if this year's group really is different.
Russell Wilson threw for 333 yards and three touchdowns to help the Wolfpack beat Cincinnati 30-19 on Thursday night, 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.
Still, O'Brien — who hasn't gotten too low during the struggles of the past three seasons — was measured in his celebration after beating the Bearcats (1-2).
"We're not a good football team, we're not a great football team," he said. "I don't know what kind of football team we are. We won't know those types of things until October."
Wilson, who had an ugly performance last week at Central Florida, looked a little more like his old self in this one.
O'Brien predicted Wilson might struggle early in the season after he missed spring drills while playing baseball for the Wolfpack, followed by a summer playing in the Colorado Rockies organization. But on Thursday night, Wilson 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, 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.
N.C. State is off to its best start since winning its first nine games behind Philip Rivers, an eventual NFL first-round draft pick.
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."