-- They came as if they were waiting in line, as if one player would take a turn sacking the quarterback, and someone would yell, "Next!" and the drill would merely repeat itself. At some point in the third quarter -- as North Carolina State's defense was simply burying Virginia Tech -- Wolfpack linebacker Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay looked up at the scoreboard at Lane Stadium, where the Hokies' total yards were displayed. The number, strangely enough, kept getting smaller.

"You see that," Aughtry-Lindsay said, "and it makes you want to keep doing it, and keep doing it, and keep doing it."

For the four previous seasons, the Wolfpack football program revolved around quarterback Philip Rivers, the ACC's career leading passer. But if Saturday's 17-16 victory over Virginia Tech shows one thing about the Wolfpack now, it is that it can win games not by rolling over opponents, but by stopping them in staggering fashion.

N.C. State allowed the Hokies, who had averaged 401 yards in their first three games, 192 yards, their lowest output since the 1998 Gator Bowl. The Wolfpack rang up 10 sacks, reducing the normally elusive Bryan Randall to little more than a tackling dummy. After nine of the Hokies' first 11 plays of the second half had gone for no gain or a loss, Virginia Tech had just six yards. Forty-three minutes of football, six yards.

"There's no team in the country that's doing that," N.C. State defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said.

Perhaps no team in the country has improved as much defensively as the Wolfpack. Last season, during a disappointing 8-5 campaign, N.C. State allowed 421 yards and nearly 30 points per game. The difference?

"They're 12 months older," Coach Chuck Amato said.

It's more than that, though. After allowing Ohio State just 137 yards of offense in a difficult, 22-14 loss last week, N.C. State entered the weekend ranked first in the nation in total defense, giving up just 152 yards per game. The most significant change, the players say, was that Amato hired Herring, a former Florida State linebacker who had been the linebackers coach with the Houston Texans after serving as Clemson's defensive coordinator.

"He has us in a state of mind that everybody has to play together, that everybody has to play with a passion, and show we love each other," senior linebacker Pat Thomas said. "He tells us we have to play with love, because you don't want to let the man next to you down."

There was very little of that Saturday. Herring's scheme made it look like the Wolfpack blitzed on every play, but it rarely brought its defensive backs. The Wolfpack's personnel, led by end Manny Lawson and Aughtry-Lindsay, blew by the Hokies. "I never thought they would handle us the way they did," Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer said.

Over the past few weeks, people had approached Herring and told him how athletic his players looked, how tall Lawson and Mario Williams, the other defensive end, were. Herring said Saturday afternoon's game showed that his defense is ready for a different label.

"That's two weeks in a row that we've been taking folks to the woodshed," Herring said, "and it takes a physical football team to do that. . . . For us to come in and what I would consider 'outphysical' them, it's about time somebody start talking about how physical we are."