The wait for NC State football is finally over. And COVID-19, the ACC and criticism for the lack of competition in nonconference scheduling have combined to give Wolfpack fans a game to be excited about for its first weekend of the college football year: a date with in-state foe Wake Forest.
Though Wake Forest is much tougher than previous years’ opening week opponents, redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary and the Wolfpack’s passing attack should have no problem chipping away at the Demon Deacon secondary. Cornerbacks Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey are massive departures for Wake Forest, and they leave a deep void, aside from preseason-ACC selection Nasir Greer manning the safety position, that Leary and his wide receivers can exploit.
The only issue for Leary and Co. is finding a way to stop standout Carlos Basham Jr., one of the premier pass rushers in the country, with 15.5 sacks last year and a potential first round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. If the offensive line can keep Basham at bay, Leary may be in line for one of his most impressive performances since he was thrust into the starting job in the middle of last season. But in order to do that, he’ll need help from fellow redshirt sophomore Devin Carter, who’ll look to improve upon his 30-catch, 400-yard season from a year ago.
Sophomore running back Zonovan Knight was nothing short of spectacular in his first season as a member of the Wolfpack, and his performance against a potentially tough Wake Forest linebacking corps may set the tone for how he plays the rest of the season. Ryan Smedna Jr. and Ja’Cquez Williams finished first and second on Wake Forest in tackles last year with 74 and 67, respectively, and getting past them is the key to getting big gains on the ground.
If Knight can perform like Clemson running back Travis Etienne did last week in Winston-Salem, NC State will have no problem scoring on the Wake Forest defense. But Smedna and Williams may be too much to handle for the first week of the season, and Knight may have to wait until week two for his first big game of the season.
The good news: The Pack defense won’t have to face former star quarterback Jamie Newman, as he transferred to Georgia. The bad news: Redshirt sophomore Sam Hartman has starting experience as a freshman in 2018.
Though the Demon Deacon offense struggled mightily in its first game against Clemson, Hartman was able to find his favorite target Taylor Morin nine times for 93 yards. That being said, Wake Forest will miss talented receiver Sage Surratt, who figured to be an early candidate for the Biletnikoff Award this season, given to the nation’s best wide receiver. Not having Surratt limits the number of options for Hartman to throw to, and if the Wolfpack can rush effectively against a relatively inexperienced Demon Deacon offensive line, it’ll be a tough day for the Wake Forest quarterback. But NC State isn’t Clemson, and after already having a subpar game against the Tigers, Hartman should bounce back.
Helping Hartman on offense are running backs Christian Beal-Smith and Kenneth Walker III, who combined for over 1,000 yards for Wake Forest last year. Linebackers sophomore Drake Thomas and redshirt sophomore Payton Wilson will be tasked with handling the two, and they may have a tough time tracking the pair down as the game progresses. Though Wilson and Thomas is a promising linebacker duo, the absence due to medical reasons of longtime linebacker Louis Acceus, one of NC State’s best tacklers, will be felt nonetheless.
The way this game goes will have more to do with Wake Forest’s strengths and weaknesses than anything NC State will do this game. Hartman is one the best young quarterbacks in college football and is talented enough to win this game by himself, but if the Wake Forest secondary can’t provide the support their offense needs, then Leary might be able to steal a victory from this top-heavy, but thin, Wake Forest side. Once the expected rust is shaken off, expect both offenses to throw often for large chunks of yardage. If NC State can follow its game plan and limit its mistakes, they should be able to pull this one out.
Prediction: NC State 34 - Wake Forest 30
The game is scheduled to be played at Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday, Sept. 19 at 8 p.m. Though fans won’t be permitted into the stadium, the game will be broadcast on the ACC Network.