No. 21 NC State faces one last hurdle: Maryland
Maryland's incentive to beat No. 21 North Carolina State has nothing to do with ruining the Wolfpack's bid to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
The Terrapins want to win Saturday for reasons that are purely selfish.
Maryland's chances of playing for the ACC crown ended last weekend with a 30-16 loss to Florida State. The victory assured the Seminoles at least a share of the Atlantic Division title, but if North Carolina State defeats the Terrapins, it will climb into a first-place tie and earn a spot in next week's championship game by virtue of its win over FSU last month.
''Basically the whole season comes down to one game,'' Wolfpack linebacker Audie Cole said.
Standing in the way is Maryland (7-4, 4-3). Walking off the field after being the Terrapins, many Seminoles and their coaches wished Maryland good luck against the Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2).
''That kind of irritated us more than anything else,'' Terps coach Ralph Friedgen said. ''We're not winning this game for Florida State. We're winning this game for Maryland. That's kind of how I think our players would approach it. I know that's how our staff is approaching it.''
It is the final home game for 16 seniors. Although the Terrapins are already bowl eligible - no small feat for a team that went 2-10 last year - a victory will make this season far more memorable and likely lead to a more prestigious bowl invite.
''To me, it's a feel-good story if we end up 8-4 with the possibility of winning nine games,'' Friedgen said. ''Going 9-4 coming from 2-10, I would say that would be a pretty big accomplishment for our team.''
The Wolfpack also has designs of making a strong season even better.
''We've already accomplished a lot of special things with the eighth win and five wins in conference,'' said coach Tom O'Brien, who will be vying for his 100th career victory Saturday. ''But the neat part is we get to keep going and try to do something else, something more special.''
The Wolfpack are coming off a tough 29-25 victory at North Carolina, and now they're facing their third road game in the last four weeks. Throw in the fact that N.C. State hasn't won at Maryland since 2004, and it's evident that this is quite a challenge.
''Is it going to be any tougher than going to Chapel Hill? I don't know. That was an awful tough situation to go to and win a football game,'' O'Brien said. ''If we're able to go to College Park and do the same thing, then this team is going to deserve to be in the ACC championship game because it's a tough hill to climb.''
The key to the Wolfpack attack is quarterback Russell Wilson, who leads the ACC's top-rated passing offense with an average of 270.6 yards per game. He has thrown 24 touchdown passes and leads the league in total offense.
The Wolfpack are averaging 32.7 points and have scored at least 38 on four occasions.
''When we do things right, one play at a time, we're unstoppable,'' Russell said. ''We're going to have to play great football on Saturday. We know that - and we're up for the challenge.''
The Wolfpack can only hope the Terrapins are still feeling down over last week's loss. Friedgen addressed that possibility in a frank message to his players before Monday's practice.
''I said, 'You don't deserve to be 7-5. You've worked too hard to be that. If there is any justice in the world, you need to go out and play and win this week,''' the coach said. ''I know it's very important to them to go to the best bowl you can possibly go to. That's been a quest, especially for our seniors.''
The Wolfpack's incentive to win runs even deeper.
''If we want to get where we want to be, we have to win this game,'' guard R.J. Mattes said. ''It's basically two ACC championships back to back. You've got to win this one and, well, we've just got to focus on this one first.''
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Raleigh, N.C. contributed to this report.