O’Brien Believes This Is His Biggest Game At State, And He’s Right
Coach Tom O’Brien was asked if the Florida State game this Thursday night is the most significant in his tenure at State, and he responded, “Yeah, certainly. Without question it is.”
At times, O’Brien can be known to drift a bit into hyperbole. His declaration State was “the best football program in the state” after beating Carolina, Wake and ECU a couple of years ago was just a *smidge* over the top, you could say.
But on the matter of this week’s game, he’s dead on: none of the games against Carolina in prior years or any against other foe for that matter (other than perhaps the bowl game against Rutgers) carries the weight the Florida State game will Thursday night.
At stake is taking the upper hand in the Atlantic Division race; the winner will either be undefeated or have only one loss in the league and hold the tie breaker over the other. The loser will likely play the remainder of the year merely hoping to improve its bowl prospects. (Though if State wins, their advantage over FSU would be tenuous. The Pack would likely need to win out to maintain their lead over the Noles and do so against a more difficult schedule than FSU down the stretch.)
Having the week off to prepare for the Noles improves State’s chances, of course, but the advantage is nullified a bit because Florida State also enters the game off a bye. The Pack showed they could capitalize on extra preparation time when the nine days in-between the Cincinnati and Georgia Tech games yielded a surprisingly strong showing against the Jackets and their spread option. One hopes having 12 days to prepare for Florida State will reap similar improvement.
But it’s worth noting in its two losses, State showed difficulty rising to the occasion. The Pack couldn’t cash in a 17-point lead against Virginia Tech and was completely out-of-sync on the road against East Carolina on the 16th of this month. Both games were huge—the Virginia Tech game, to prove the Pack belonged among the unbeaten, and the ECU game, to prove it could win against a rival when they were the favorite.
So can State shake those “big game” jitters and play the “perfect game” they’ll need to against FSU?
I think the fact State is an underdog at home may work in its favor. It’s easier for the State coaching staff to get players hungry and focused when facing a team supposedly better than them. If this were Wake Forest rather than the Noles, I might feel uneasy about State playing well.
But I believe State will play well this week. FSU quarterback Christian Ponder is ailing a bit, they’re a player down on the offensive line and few crowds in the ACC can match a Carter-Finley crowd on a Thursday night. The weather is an x-factor—right now it’s hit-or-miss for rain Thursday night—but if it holds off and both teams are able to fully utilize their offensive weapons, I think State’s got a good shot.
For O’Brien, it’s critical his team shows they can finish a big game strong, especially if State builds a lead at any point. If the Pack go up by a score or two and can’t close the deal, folks will start to wonder if failing to cash in a win is more a trend than an anomaly.
In that sense, it truly is O’Brien’s biggest game so far.