|No. 20 N.C. State aims for 4-0 ACC start at Pitt|
Things haven't been this good for No. 20 North Carolina State in many years.
N.C. State (5-1, 3-0 ACC) holds its highest national ranking since early in the 2003 season and will be trying to move to 4-0 in conference play for the first time since 2002 when it plays at Pittsburgh on Saturday.
The Panthers, meanwhile, certainly aren't content with how things have gone, and the season becomes more challenging this week because their starting quarterback is out. This matchup at Heinz Field will be the first ACC game between the schools since Pitt (2-4, 0-2) joined in 2013.
Despite the contrasting fortunes so far, this is no time for the Wolfpack to let up.
"We can't ever think that we've made it because we haven't," N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. "We're at the halfway point right now. We've put ourselves in a great place. It doesn't mean that we're satisfied at all."
Pittsburgh will play this homecoming game without quarterback Max Browne, who leads the ACC in completion percentage (71.1 percent). He suffered a right arm injury last week in a loss at Syracuse and is out for a least a couple of weeks, according to coach Pat Narduzzi. Sophomore Ben DiNucci has been dubbed the starter for the second time this season.
"Ben has got a ton of ability," Narduzzi said. "We've talked about that. He needs to relax in the pocket and identify who he's supposed to read."
N.C. State has a steady hand at quarterback with Ryan Finley, who has thrown 10 touchdown passes this season. His 288 consecutive throws, dating to last season, without being picked off is the longest active streak in the country.
The Pittsburgh offense has been so awkward that safety Jordan Whitehead was summoned to the backfield and he gained 73 yards on seven carries against Syracuse.
Narduzzi said it's important to keep him fresh so he doesn't slack off on the defensive side.
"I don't want to wear the kid out," Narduzzi said. "We'll do what we need to do, but he's a super kid who's all in."
N.C. State can counter with a versatile player as well in running back Nyheim Hines, who totaled 225 all-purpose yards in a win against Louisville. Hines has eclipsed 100 rushing yards in each of the past two games and is a threat as a kickoff returner.
The Wolfpack ought to be well-rested with a couple of extra days to prepare after knocking off the then-No. 17 Cardinals 39-25 last Thursday.
"We just put the pieces of the puzzle together and believed that we could really make something happen," receiver Kelvin Harmon said. "As the season goes on, it keeps growing."
Doeren said Pittsburgh's offense reflects some of the influence of former N.C. State offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who spent the 2016 season with the Panthers before leaving for LSU.
Not only will the Panthers have a different starting quarterback this week, but they'll likely be without running back Chawntez Moss (suspended indefinitely) and will continue rotating some of the offensive lineman, Narduzzi said. That could be daunting against a rugged N.C. State defensive front that features end Bradley Chubb, who has moved up to No. 8 among the top prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
"They've got one of the best D-lines you'll see in the country," Narduzzi said.
Moss has started one game this season, splitting time with Qadree Ollison, who has a team-high 249 yards on 63 carries for the nation's 107th-best rushing attack.
Without a strong surge in the second half of the season, Pittsburgh will be without a bowl appearance for the first time in a decade. Narduzzi said such matters aren't worth thinking about now.
"The great thing about our kids is they care," Narduzzi said. "They've got a great care factor. They want to get better."
Pittsburgh has mostly fared well against the ACC's Atlantic Division, going 7-2 (with one of the setbacks last week to Syracuse and the other in its first ACC game to 2013 eventual national champion Florida State).
N.C. State junior defensive end Darian Roseboro expects to play while grieving the death of his father on Saturday. Wolfpack players will wear a helmet decal to honor the late Johnny Roseboro.