Russell Wilson’s encore

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The Wolfpack Nation is drenched in optimism these days.

N.C. State fans are (somewhat uncharacteristically) seeing the bright side of things. They see the N.C. State football team as the squad that closed 2008 with four straight wins and a narrowly lost bowl game, not the one that lost six of eight to start the season.

They see a team whose health can only improve after the catastrophic string of injuries that undid last year’s team.

Above all, they see a quarterback who’s only scratched the surface of what he can do.

Are they right?

Last year, then-redshirt freshman Wilson had one of the unlikeliest great seasons we’ve seen in the ACC. In the preseason, he won a three-man battle for the starting quarterback’s position. A concussion felled him in the season opener against South Carolina, and a knee injury shelved him midway through the PapaJohns.com Bowl against Rutgers.

In between, Wilson had one of the more extraordinary debut seasons in ACC quarterback history. He was named to the All-ACC first team, the first freshman to earn that honor in the conference’s 57-year history. State was a markedly better team when he was on the field.

Here’s Wilson’s 2008 stat line:

Att Comp Comp% TD INT Rating Yards Yds/att
Russell Wilson 275 150 54.5 17 1 133.9 1955 7.11

An uncanny ability to protect the ball made Wilson so exceptional last year. His interception rate – 0.36 percent – is the lowest one in the ACC this decade. His touchdown rate – he threw one every 16 attempts, roughly – was also slightly above average.

Wilson was outstanding on third down, when his quarterback rating rose to 143.1, second in the conference behind UNC’s T.J. Yates. Wilson threw 73 passes on third down; 44 percent of them (33) led to a conversion or a touchdown. That TD/conversion rate was third in the conference among quarterbacks with a significant number of attempts.

It appears the sky is the limit for Wilson, but is it? He does have room to grow, mainly in his accuracy. Wilson’s completion percentage last year was mediocre at best. The biggest question surrounding him is whether he can stay healthy this season. In addition to the head and and knee injuries, Wilson also hurt his shoulder last year.

To get a sense of what recent ACC history might say about Wilson’s immediate future, I ran similarity scores on all conference quarterbacks who’ve thrown more than 100 passes in a season since 1999.

A note on similarity scores, which I compiled using Jason Lisk’s formula: The formula bundles attempts, completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdowns and interceptions to offer a simple comparison among players. The closer the similarity score is to 1,000, the more similar the season.

Here are the 10 most similar ACC seasons this decade to Wilson’s 2008:

Year

Player

School

Att

Comp

TD

INT

Comp%

Rating

Yards

Yds/att

Sim score

2000

Philip Rivers

NCSt

441

237

25

10

53.74

126.1

3054

6.93

706

2004

Brock Berlin

MiaF

348

195

22

6

56

138.1

2680

7.7

700

2002

Adrian McPherson

FLSt

155

80

12

1

51.61

131

1017

6.56

644

2007

Thaddeus Lewis

Duke

360

199

21

10

55.3

125.7

2430

6.75

635

2007

Cullen Harper

Clem

433

282

27

6

65.1

141

2991

6.91

629

2004

Bryan Randall

VT

306

170

21

9

55.6

134.5

2264

7.4

593

2002

Chris Rix

FLSt

225

118

13

7

52.44

128.1

1684

7.48

567

2003

Scott McBrien

Md

314

173

19

6

55.1

142.7

2672

8.51

540

2002

Matt Schaub

Uva

418

288

28

7

68.9

147.5

2976

7.12

512

2007

Tyrod Taylor

VT

134

72

5

3

53.7

119.7

927

6.92

512

There’s a lot for NCSU fans to like on that list, starting at number one. Rivers is arguably the greatest quarterback in ACC history. Like Wilson, the freshman Rivers combined a high touchdown total with low completion and interception percentages.

As encouraging as that first entry is, some of the other names should raise alerts around Raleigh. McPherson never played for FSU again after 2002. Harper lost his job in 2008.

Lewis may have had the greatest misfortune of all: he still had to quarterback Duke in ’08. (Easy, Duke fans. Your program’s on the rise, and I’m running out of time to make Duke football jokes.)

Here are the next-year numbers for the six quarterbacks who did return:

School

Att

Comp

TD

Int

Comp%

Rating

Yards

Yds/att

2001

Philip Rivers

NCSt

369

240

16

7

65.04

134.4

2586

7.01

2008

Thaddeus Lewis

Duke

361

224

15

6

62

123

2171

6.01

2008

Cullen Harper

Clem

360

221

13

14

61.4

126.2

2601

7.23

2003

Chris Rix

FSU

382

216

23

13

56.5

137.9

3107

8.13

2003

Matt Schaub

Uva

403

281

18

10

69.7

141

2952

7.33

2008

Tyrod Taylor

VT

173

99

2

7

57.2

103.03

1036

5.99

It’s a mixed bag. Rivers and Rix generally improved (although each threw fewer touchdowns). But Lewis, Harper, Schaub and Taylor all declined, with Taylor and Harper slipping badly.

It’s worth noting that only Rivers and Taylor were, like Wilson, freshmen during their similar seasons.

It’s no insult to be compared to the likes of Rivers and Schaub, two of the best ACC passers of the last decade. But this is a small sample of comparable players. We can only safely draw a few conclusions.

Wilson’s interception rate will rise. No quarterback in the last 10 years has protected the ball as well as Wilson did in 2008. It would be nearly impossible for him to duplicate that historic achievement.

So will his completion percentage. Excepting Harper, all the returning quarterbacks on this list had better completion percentages in year two.

Statistically, Wilson will look more like a solid game manager than a world beater this year. With tailbacks Toney Baker and Jamelle Eugene healthy, the Pack is likely to run more often and find itself playing from behind less frequently. Like Rivers in 2001, Wilson should pass less regularly but do more with the chances he gets.

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One Response to Russell Wilson’s encore

  1. […] We’re admittedly a little biased at IoT, but congratulations to N.C. State QB Russell Wilson for breaking the NCAA record for consecutive passes without throwing an interception. Wilson has now thrown 329 straight passes without a pick and, so far, has shown few signs of taking a step back. […]

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