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December 27, 2010

Champs Sports Bowl: NC State vs. WVU

CHAMPS SPORTS BOWL
WHEN: Dec. 28, 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium, Orlando.
TV:ESPN (Joe Tessitore will do play-by-play, with Rod Gilmore as the analyst).
THE LINE: West Virginia by 2.5.
RECORDS VS. BOWL TEAMS: NC State 5-4, West Virginia 4-3.
NCAA SCHEDULE STRENGTH: NC State T-26th, West Virginia 67th.
BCS RANKINGS: NC State unranked, West Virginia 22nd.
OFFICIATING CREW: From the Big Ten.
COACHES: NC State - Tom O'Brien (6-2 in bowls); West Virginia - Bill Stewart (2-1 in bowls).
WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH: When they're healthy, West Virginia RB Noel Devine and NC State QB Russell Wilson are two of the nation's most exciting players. This represents Devine's last college performance and it could mark the final football game of any kind for Wilson, a junior pondering whether to give up football to pursue his pro baseball career.
KEY STATS: This game matches two of the nation's most prolific pass rushes. West Virginia ranks third in the nation with 3.33 sacks per game. North Carolina State averages 3.25 sacks per game and 7.83 tackles for loss per game to rank fourth in both categories. Slowing down the opposition's passing attack is going to be a key in this game, and putting pressure on the quarterback obviously is a way to mess with the passing games.

Over the past three seasons, few players have been more fun to watch than West Virginia running back Noel Devine and North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson.

Tuesday's Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando might represent the last chance to see either of them in a college setting.

It certainly represents the finale for Devine, who surprised plenty of people by deciding to return for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft. And it could represent the last football game of any kind for Wilson, a pro baseball prospect with one year of college football eligibility left.

Devine's senior season hasn't quite gone according to plan. A preseason Heisman candidate, Devine has rushed for 866 yards -- down significantly from his 2009 total of 1,465 -- while struggling with a toe injury for much of the season.

Perhaps a three-week layoff has given him enough recovery time to recapture the breakaway speed he showed in his first three seasons at West Virginia. Devine, who starred at North Fort Myers (Fla.) High, about four hours from Orlando, would love to cap his career with a memorable performance in his home state.

"I just want to go out with a bang and throw a party, a coming-out party," Devine told reporters. "It'll be the last one for WVU."

And it might be the last one at North Carolina State for Wilson. He already has graduated with a communications degree, and he was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies and spent the summer playing second base in the Class A Northwest League.

Wilson hasn't indicated whether he plans to play football again next fall or become a full-time pro baseball player. If he returns for his senior season, Wilson would enter the year as a dark-horse contender for the Heisman. A big performance against West Virginia's exceptional defense could serve as an effective launch for any upcoming awards campaign.

Wilson has thrown for 3,288 yards and 26 touchdowns this season while also rushing for 394 yards and nine scores. West Virginia ranks second in the nation in scoring defense (behind only TCU) and third in total defense. WVU is the only team in the nation not to allow more than 21 points in a game this season.

WHO GETS THE EDGE?

NC State rush offense vs. West Virginia rush defense: Consider this a mismatch. NC State averages 3.5 yards per carry and ranks just 93rd nationally with 125.0 rushing yards per game. WVU ranks second in the nation in run defense and has allowed just 2.7 yards per carry and 85.1 rushing yards per game. Mustafa Greene leads the Wolfpack with 584 rushing yards, but only 89 of those yards came in his team's last four games. The Wolfpack's biggest running threat may be QB Russell Wilson, who has rushed for 394 yards and nine touchdowns. WVU has allowed just three rushing TDs; just twice since the turn of the century has a run defense been that effective: Ohio State allowed three rushing TDs in 2007 and TCU allowed three in 2000. Edge: West Virginia.

NC State pass offense vs. West Virginia pass defense: WVU ranks 11th in the nation in pass efficiency defense, but the Mountaineers haven't faced a passing quarterback as good as Wilson; he has thrown for 3,288 yards and 26 touchdowns, with 14 interceptions. Wilson has accumulated at least 300 passing yards in eight of the Wolfpack's 12 games. Wilson must watch out for West Virginia's stout pass rush and must avoid Mountaineers CB Keith Tandy, who has picked off six passes. Edge: NC State.

West Virginia rush offense vs. NC State rush defense: This matchup depends on which Noel Devine shows up. Will the Wolfpack see the injury-riddled Devine, who rushed for 100 yards in just one of the Mountaineers' last nine regular-season games? Or will it be the Devine of years past, who earned a reputation as one of the nation's top breakaway threats? Even if he's feeling great, Devine could have trouble finding running room against a Wolfpack defense that has allowed just 3.3 yards per carry and 113 rushing yards per game. Edge: NC State.

West Virginia pass offense vs. NC State pass defense: WVU is known as a run-oriented team, but the Mountaineers could have plenty of success throwing the ball against the Wolfpack's suspect pass defense as long as they protect QB Geno Smith. The Wolfpack rank just 88th nationally in pass efficiency defense and allowed more than 400 passing yards in each of their last two regular-season games. Smith has thrown 23 touchdown passes and has been picked off only six times this season. Edge: West Virginia.

NC State special teams vs. West Virginia special teams: NC State K Josh Czajkowski has gone 17-of-22 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 47, but all of his misses were from within 40 yards. The Wolfpack rank just 104th in net punting, 42nd in punt-return average, 111th in kickoff returns and 73rd in kickoff-return defense. West Virginia's Tyler Bitancurt is 10-of-15 on field goals and just 2-of-5 from at least 40 yards out. West Virginia ranks 40th in net punting and 35th in kickoff-return defense. The Mountaineers also are just 112th in kickoff-return average and 50th in punt-return average. Edge: NC State.

NC State coaches vs. West Virginia coaches: Tom O'Brien developed a reputation as one of the nation's best postseason coaches while at Boston College, though he lost his only bowl at North Carolina State two years ago when Rutgers came from behind after an injury to Wilson. It will be interesting to see how WVU responds to the news that coach Bill Stewart is being forced out after the 2011 season. WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is one of the best in the business. Edge: NC State.

X-factor: How healthy is Devine? If a month of rest has given Devine enough time to regain his 2008 or '09 form, WVU becomes a much different team -- and probably a much better team than NC State. If Devine's toe continues to bother him, this game becomes much more of a toss-up.

NC State will win if: The Wolfpack need a huge game from Wilson. If Wilson gets plenty of time to pass and manages to avoid interceptions, NC State has a great shot at the victory.

West Virginia will win if: A big performance from Devine would make things much easier for the Mountaineers. If Devine continues to struggle with the toe injury, West Virginia will need its defense to continue performing the way it has all season. As good as Wilson is, he occasionally tries to force passes and becomes vulnerable to the interception. Since 2002, WVU has gone 59-4 when it has forced more turnovers than it has committed. That could be the Mountaineers' formula for success in this game as well.

EXPERT PICKS

Olin Buchanan: West Virginia 27, NC State 17
Tom Dienhart: NC State 24, West Virginia 20
David Fox: West Virginia 21, NC State 14
Mike Huguenin: West Virginia 23, NC State 17
Steve Megargee: West Virginia 23, NC State 17

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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