NC State is knocking on the door of the AP Top 25 after its upset victory over Virginia Saturday. The Wolfpack (3-1, 3-1 ACC) now stands at fourth in the ACC after being picked to finish 11th in the preseason. Here are some takeaways from the win:
True freshmen stepping up for the Pack
Freshman wide receiver Porter Rooks had himself a coming-out party Saturday, despite what, at first glance, looks like a pedestrian day. He caught three of five targets and was NC State’s second-leading receiver, but Rooks’ play had to be seen. His first target, Leary led him a bit too far into the end zone, but Rooks corralled it with one hand in a spectacular diving touchdown catch that was later ruled incomplete. His third target was a tough 25-yard diving catch near the sideline, and his fourth was a 20-yard reception thrown into double coverage. If nothing else was clear, Leary has a huge amount of trust in Rooks and it’s easy to see why.
On the defensive side, freshman nickelback Joshua Pierre-Louis was thrust into a starting role with junior nickel Tyler Baker-Williams out for the past two weeks, and Pierre-Louis has been nothing but solid. Prior to his ejection for targeting, he was playing well and did more of the same against the Cavaliers, recording five tackles and even catching an interception. With NC State’s secondary depth as bad as it currently is, it’s huge to have young players stepping up.
Cleaning up the red zone offense
NC State entered the Virginia game perfect in the red zone with 12 scores in 12 entries, 11 of those being touchdowns. That’s a far cry from last year, which saw a truly terrible NC State offense go 83% in the red zone, just 48% of those touchdowns. Against the Cavaliers, though, the offense had its first two empty red zone drives.
Both came in the second half, with NC State needing more points to ice the game. Leary threw his first interception of the year at the Virginia 18, an attempted hookup with Emeka Emezie but the ball was underthrown. Then, junior kicker Chris Dunn uncharacteristically missed a 37-yarder at the Virginia 19. Coming out of the red zone with no points is back-breaking for an offense, and NC State won’t get away with that against better teams.
Turnovers won NC State the game against Virginia. The defense, after forcing only one turnover through its first three games, came away with four takeaways: three interceptions and a fumble. And it should’ve had six interceptions. Going into the second half, the team clearly smelled blood in the water, with junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill saying he told defensive coordinator Tony Gibson he would get a pick six in the second half.
Indeed the team tried its hardest to throw a turnover party, as the whole secondary had no respect for Lindell Stone’s ability to beat it through the air, playing every ball it could. Sophomore safety Jakeen Harris dropped two interceptions and vowed postgame to get some hands work with the jugs machine this week. While it was huge that the unit took the ball away from the Cavaliers so consistently, it’s even more impressive that NC State’s offense has not been turning the ball over.
Leary has only thrown one interception, and none of the running backs have lost a fumble. Last year, the team had 21 turnovers and a margin of minus-13, but thus far, the 2020 team has four turnovers and margin of plus-one.
Harris the x-factor for goal-line stands
For the second time this year, NC State had a goal-line stand, and that’s something the defense takes pride in. While some complain about the personnel the Wolfpack defense puts on the field, no one can deny there’s some serious size on the defensive line headed by McNeill. But when it comes time to stop someone at the 1-yard line, McNeill moves over to end and 6-foot-4, 344-pound redshirt freshman defensive tackle Joshua Harris anchors the middle with sophomore defensive end Savion Jackson on the other side. With that kind of size, it’s a little less surprising that the Wolfpack wins at the goal line.
“I don’t think anybody in the country can move Josh out of the way by themselves,” McNeill said. “We know they’re not going to run a slam up the middle, so they’re going to try and bounce it out, and we’ve got big ends in…we had no problem getting in the B gaps. When you’ve got somebody like Josh in there, the confidence level is through the roof.”
Wolfpack still looking for a complete game
With each victory, NC State redefines its expectations. At first, the team looked like a one-trick pony with its rushing attack, then a complete offense, and now the defense is coming along with special teams showing out as well. But the team is yet to have a game with all facets operating at a high level. That’s the next step NC State will have to take, maybe not against Duke, but Miami and UNC are looming on the schedule, and both teams are more than capable of exposing whatever holes the Wolfpack presents. McNeill described the defense’s potential as “scary,” and that may be an apt descriptor for this team as a whole.