Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich
It was a familiar story in Raleigh, but this time coach Tom O'Brien led the Wolfpack to a different ending. For the second straight season, O'Brien had an absurd amount of injuries to starters. In 2007, 13 starters missed time, including six who missed multiple games. This season, 13 starters again missed multiple games because of injuries, including quarterback Russell Wilson and linebacker Nate Irving, arguably the team's top two playmakers.
In NC State's four-game winning streak to end the season, most of the starters were back in the lineup. NC State began the season 2-4 before finishing 4-2. With everyone healthy, NC State showed significant improvement on both sides of the ball, gaining over 100 more yards per game while at the same time allowing an average of 86 fewer yards over the past six games. O'Brien became the first coach in ACC history to lose the first four league games of the season and win the last four. No other team in the ACC won as many conference games in the second half of the season.
Offensive MVP: Quarterback Russell Wilson. Since the Sept. 13 loss to Clemson game, Wilson has thrown 226 passes without an interception, the nation's longest streak and a school record. He has thrown just one interception all season -- fewest among all FBS quarterbacks. He has accounted for 12.4 points per game, and leads the ACC in passing efficiency and total offense.
Defensive MVP: Linebacker Nate Irving. He missed three games with an ankle injury, but the Wolfpack is 6-2 when he's healthy, and it's not a coincidence. Irving has 41 tackles during the Pack's four-game winning streak. His team-high four interceptions are the most by a linebacker at NC State.
Turning point: The 27-17 win over Duke on Nov. 8 sparked the four-game winning streak that put NC State back in the postseason, and it marked the return of Irving, who had 10 tackles in that game. It was the healthiest the Wolfpack had been all season.
What's next: The Wolfpack are playing in a bowl game for the first time since 2005, as NC State and Rutgers enter the Papajohns.com Bowl as two of the hottest teams in the nation right now. It's a familiar opponent for O'Brien, who coached against Rutgers for eight of his 10 seasons at Boston College, when both programs were members of the Big East. He was 8-0 against the Scarlet Knights.