NC State redshirt junior left tackle R.J. Mattes can literally say he's been waiting most of his life for today's game at Virginia.
Mattes grew up cheering for the Cavaliers because of his father, Ron Mattes, who played defensive tackle at UVa from 1981-84 and then had an eight-year NFL career as an offensive lineman from 1985-92. R.J. Mattes grew up wearing Virginia T-shirts and lived about an hour northwest of Charlottesville in Bridgewater, Va., early in his life.
The Wolfpack has played the Cavaliers only twice since ACC expansion, with the last contest in Raleigh on Oct. 27, 2007. NCSU pulled out a 29-24 upset victory in what will always be known as the "Donald Bowens game." The then-sophomore wide receiver caught 11 passes for 202 yards and two scores.
The current NC State players have never played against Virginia, but the matchup will be a special one for Mattes.
"I've been there a thousand times as a kid and been in the crowd," Mattes said. "I've always thought it would be fun to play on that field. Now, I finally get a chance, but for a different team."
Mattes will always remember the picture on the wall of his father celebrating a 1984 Peach Bowl victory and screaming his lungs out.
"He made me pose in front of it and took a picture of me," said Mattes, who was born in Seattle while his father was playing for the Seahawks. "I still have that picture to this day, and that's a good memory of back then.
"I have a picture on my Facebook page of my dad and I, and I'm all decked out in UVa gear. It's a funny picture."
Mattes ended up picking NC State over Clemson, South Carolina, Virginia, North Carolina and others, thanks to another Cavaliers connection. NCSU coach Tom O'Brien was an assistant coach under George Welsh from 1982-96 in Charlottesville.
"I know I made the right choice in coming here to NC State," said Mattes, a three-year starter. "I respect UVa a lot and I was a fan all my life. I know I made the right decision to come here to play for Coach O'Brien, along with [offensive line coaches] Coach [Don] Horton and Coach [Jim] Bridge."
Mattes grew up hearing the stories about how his father made life difficult on O'Brien's offensive linemen.
"Coach O'Brien was the O-line coach, and in one-on-ones my dad said he would always go against his O-lineman and beat them," Mattes said. "He'd start yelling, 'OB, you have no one that can block me!' He used to talk junk to Coach O'Brien.
"During the recruiting process, you could tell they had a relationship. They would talk to each other like people to people and not like coach and dad. It was pretty cool to go through the recruiting process like that."
O'Brien seemed to remember the story a little differently in that Ron Mattes tried to avoid offensive tackle and future first-round NFL Draft choice Jim Dombrowski in practice.
R.J. Mattes did make O'Brien and NC State sweat a little bit during the recruiting process, but the head coach is happy to have him "quarterback" the Wolfpack offensive line.
"He certainly could have gone elsewhere," O'Brien said. "His father played at UVa and he grew up wanting to go to UVa. It was a tough battle. Jim Bridge did a great job of recruiting him. He sold him on he's a North Carolina kid now and he should go to North Carolina State."
The only thing that would have made the homecoming even sweeter is if Mattes' father was still coaching at Virginia. He was a graduate assistant last year for the Cavaliers and coached the offensive line, but ended up taking an offensive line coaching position at Elon under first-year coach Jason Swepson, the former Wolfpack running backs coach.
"I wish he was still up there so we could talk a little bit of junk, but we still are," Mattes said. "He's obviously a fan of me, but his heart is with UVa. He was All-ACC up there, so he's a big-time fan of UVa. I just hope we come out on top."
Mattes knows he wouldn't be the player he is today without his father, and is proud he got back into coaching at UVa and now at Elon. The Phoenix host Tennessee-Chattanooga for homecoming at the same time as the NC State at Virginia game.
Ron Mattes previously coached at James Madison before coaching his son in middle school and high school.
"He was the offensive line coach but had the title of a G.A., but he wasn't the official O-line coach," said Mattes, who had his father as an assistant coach at Concord (N.C.) Robinson High. "It was good for him because he got back into coaching. The reason why he [originally] quit was to coach me in high school.
"The reason why I'm playing D-I now is because of my dad, who coached me all my life."
Mattes' fundamentals have helped him fit wherever the offensive line needs him. He started the first eight games of his redshirt freshman season before suffering an ACL knee injury against Florida State. He was able to miss only two games of his second season after a vigorous rehabilitation, but made the move to right tackle.
Mattes has settled on what is his likely long-term position at left tackle, where he is protecting the blind side of his former roommate, redshirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon. Mattes has allowed three sacks in 406 plays this season, and eight sacks in his 25-game NCSU career.
"We have a chemistry, so if I ever give up a sack, I'm harder on myself than he is to me," Mattes said. "I don't want Mike to ever get hit. The O-line never wants Mike to get hit. The last two games, we've tightened up as a group and allowed just one sack last game [versus Central Michigan Oct. 8]."
O'Brien always wants his best offensive lineman at left tackle, hence Mattes' switch this season.
"He's been fine and is getting better," O'Brien said. "He is much more comfortable. He had to move from the right side to the left side, so it took him a little bit of an adjustment. Like everybody else up front, he's gotten better as the season has gone on."
Mattes joked that he had the plays backward during the spring because the numbering system is different at left tackle compared to right.
"It's going smoothly now that I'm getting into things," Mattes said. "I'm playing out here without thinking and just executing. I'm being a lot more physical off the ball."
Mattes is also proud junior running back James Washington has rushed for more than 100 yards the last two games. The Wolfpack had an abysmal minus-29 yards rushing against Cincinnati Sept. 22, but has since bounced back. NC State rushed for 195 yards on 38 carries against Georgia Tech Oct. 1 and then 162 on 45 attempts versus the Chippewas.
The running game should get a boost with the return of redshirt junior left guard Andrew Wallace to the two-deep on the depth chart. Wallace started all but one game last year before he suffered an ACL tear during pre-Champs Sports Bowl practices in December 2010.
"We definitely needed this bye week," Mattes said. "We'll get our fresh legs back and Coach O'Brien gave us a bunch of days off. It's good to rest and get our bodies back. We can be a more physical team after the bye week.
"Every single day, Coach Bridge yells at us, 'Be physical! Be physical!' We work on that every day."