With no game to play this week, the players and coaches on the NC State football team have to be feeling pretty good about themselves. The team has won all five of the games its played, is 2-0 to start ACC play and has played strong on both sides of the ball.
That sets the table for NC State to put itself in the driver’s seat to win the ACC Atlantic Division with a trip to take on No. 4 Clemson next week. That’s a tall task, but the Pack has played Clemson tough both of the last times it played the Tigers.
In order to give itself a chance, the Wolfpack will need to continue to do what it has done in two phases of the game and clean up one other. Let’s take a look at one strength, one surprise and one area that needs to improve going into one of the biggest games of the Dave Doeren era.
Strength: Offense – No surprise here. The prevailing thought coming into the season was that NC State would field the best passing attack in the ACC, and the first five games did nothing to dispute that notion. Finley leads the ACC in passing yards with 1621, is second in completion percentage at 69.5 and has 10 touchdown passes to go with just three picks.
Finley has spread the ball around to his plethora of weapons. Junior Kelvin Harmon is second in the ACC with 534 receiving yards and tied for second with 33 catches. Redshirt junior Jakobi Meyers is fourth with 30 catches. Graduate Stephen Louis, sophomore Emeka Emezie, redshirt sophomore C.J. Riley, redshirt freshman Thayer Thomas and redshirt sophomore tight end Cary Angeline have also made their mark.
Through nonconference play, the run game minus NFLer Nyheim Hines was a concern. Enter a healthy freshman Ricky Person Jr., and that’s no longer the case. Person had 108 yards on 14 carries in the ACC play-opening win over Virginia, and had 92 yards on 17 carries against Boston College. Senior Reggie Gallaspy Jr. joined the fun against Boston College with 104 yards and two scores on 25 carries.
A balanced, full-strength Wolfpack offense is a scary prospect for opposing defenses.
“I think it’s definitely challenging [for defenses],” Doeren said after the Virginia win. “You can’t look at one guy and say, ‘We’re going to take [Harmon] out of the game.’ You can do that, but you’re going to suffer on the other side.”
Surprise: Defense – The Wolfpack definitely has the pieces on defense to overcome the losses from last year and not experience a huge drop-off. Through the first five games, it’s been better than last year. The Pack currently ranks 15th in the country in scoring defense, as the team is allowing an average of just 16.8 points per game.
“I really don’t feel a drop-off,” senior defensive tackle Eurndraus Bryant said after the win against the Eagles. “A lot of people think it’s a drop-off between all those good players last year and now, but the way we’re playing right now, I’m loving it. It feels the same, honestly, if not better.”
That was on display against Boston College, where the team only allowed the Eagles to cash in 10 points on four turnovers, and held them to three points until late in the third quarter. Graduate linebacker Germaine Pratt leads the way, and he leads the ACC with 49 tackles.
The Pack’s secondary is better than it’s been in years, and the front seven is steady, if less flashy than last year’s NFL-laden unit, currently sitting at 15th in the country in run defense. The team will need its defense to take it to another level against Clemson and Syracuse, but it’s certainly capable of doing so.
“Tough as nails,” Doeren said. “[Defensive Coordinator Dave Huxtable] and his staff have those guys right where they want them. The kids are playing hard, they believe in what they’re doing and they’re playing together. They don’t care who makes the play or who gets the credit; they just play hard.”
Concern: Special teams – This is actually an area where the Pack has improved in one regard, with freshman Christopher Dunn giving the team a reliable kicker for the first time in years. However, the mistakes on special teams have kept what should have been comfortable wins closer than they needed to be.
The Pack gave up a touchdown on a kickoff return fumble against Marshall, allowed Virginia to recover an onside kick, and muffed a punt, had a field goal blocked and gave up a blocked punt touchdown against Boston College. The team also needs to improve its coverage on kick and punt returns.
So far, these self-inflicted wounds have not costed the Pack a win, but the team would do well to avoid pushing its luck on special teams in the remaining games, especially against Clemson.