Fresh off the win against Syracuse, NC State (7-3, 6-3 ACC) is looking to keep the good times rolling against Georgia Tech and lay it all on the line for the last game of the regular season. This game has the potential to see offensive fireworks, but it takes two to tango, and while NC State is sure to put up some points, it’s uncertain whether Georgia Tech will be up to the task and do the same.
The Georgia Tech (3-5, 3-4 ACC) defense doesn’t figure to make a lot of noise in this matchup, so it makes sense to skip entirely, except it wouldn’t be a Bailey Hockman game without seeing an interception. The redshirt junior quarterback has improved immensely since the bye week and proved naysayers, like myself, wrong in the second half of this season. By and large, the Wolfpack hasn't skipped a beat since the injury to redshirt sophomore Devin Leary.
But Hockman still has a major flaw in his game, and that is his penchant for throwing inconveniently-timed interceptions. A lot of the time, there’s no damage done, like the INT Hockman threw against Syracuse last week that wasn’t really his fault and was really a heads-up play by the Syracuse D.
Other times, the habitual Hockman interception comes at the worst possible moment, like the pick against Miami that sealed the victory for the Hurricanes. While Georgia Tech isn’t known for its ball-hawking secondary in particular, with just four interceptions from the group on the year, if the patterns from this season are anything to go by, then the interception streak is bound to continue.
What might make this game get ugly early is the play of junior running back Ricky Person Jr. and sophomore back Zonovan Knight. The Georgia Tech run defense is nothing to write home about, ranking 90th in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed per game, according to Odds Shark. There’s nothing wrong with the Yellow Jacket run defense; it’s just that they’ve been pedestrian, and as the ACC opponents have figured out this season, Person and Knight are anything but.
The old Paul Johnson defenses of yesteryear were masters at stopping the run, but those defenses, and the man who coached them, are long gone, and they won’t be around to stop this dynamic duo. Person and Knight are closing in on a combined 1,300 rushing yards on the season, and there’s a chance the two will flirt with 1,500 by the end of the game.
The X-factor in this game is whether or not the Georgia Tech offense can keep pace with the NC State attack. They certainly have some talent to do that, starting with true freshman quarterback Jeff Sims. Whether he’s running the ball or passing it, Sims has shown that he’s a potential playmaker. Unfortunately for Sims, his passing ability hasn’t quite caught up with his ability to run, which plays into the hands of the NC State defense.
While the Wolfpack secondary isn’t bad, it’s clear the strength of the Pack defense comes from the front six. Junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill, redshirt sophomore linebacker Payton Wilson and redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore lead an NC State defense that has proven stingy against the run most of the year, and Georgia Tech should prove no exception.
NC State doesn’t have a lot of sacks on the year, just 29 through 10 games, but the defense has been able to pressure quarterbacks pretty consistently all year. If NC State can contain Sims in the pocket, it can force him to make passes downfield, which he’s proven isn’t his strong suit, passing for only 1,492 yards. For context, that’s less than Hockman’s total on the year, and he wasn’t even the starting quarterback for the first half of the season. Case in point, if this game comes down to the downfield passing of Sims, the Atlanta faithful are in for a rough Saturday.
Overall, the NC State offense has a clear advantage over the Georgia Tech defense, with the one-two punch of Person and Knight due for another monster game and Hockman projected to have another efficient game, barring the weekly interception that has become routine.
While the NC State front six should be largely successful, letting Sims loose to throw even a single bomb downfield could prove to be fatal. I do think a few of those deep vertical passes can connect for some big plays, but ultimately, the NC State offense will be too much to handle.
Prediction: NC State 41, Georgia Tech 27