CHARLOTTESVILLE, V.A.— NC State’s defense put forth its best performance of the year Saturday, allowing just 21 points and holding Virginia to 4.4 yards a play and 2.8 yards per rush. The Wolfpack (3-1, 3-1 ACC) dominated the Cavaliers (1-2, 1-2 ACC) early, and while it let off the gas a bit late, takeaways were the key to both its defensive success and the team’s win.
Turnovers are a function of how well a defense is playing. They are the front’s ability to create pressure and the coverage’s ability of the backend, but sometimes, they’re just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. While we might prefer exciting highlights, a player for outsmarting a QB and jumping a route versus having a duck land in his lap, they both go in the box score just the same.
NC State’s two first-half interceptions were examples of the latter. With NC State’s offense struggling to get points on the board early in the first, the defense set up a 3rd and 11 at Virginia’s 33. As Brennan Armstrong took a shot downfield to try and convert, he overthrew his intended target. Redshirt freshman cornerback Shyheim Battle, who had passed off his receiver, had the ball fall into his stomach, and NC State immediately turned that into its first seven points. With his first career interception, Battle ended up being the first of four to add signatures to NC State’s turnover bone, which was dreamed up by the staff and debuted Saturday.
That wasn’t the only time the defense would kickstart NC State’s offense. Toward the end of the second quarter, NC State’s secondary made back-to-back big-time plays — first a sack by Battle to set up 2nd and 20, then freshman nickelback Joshua Pierre-Louis made up for last week’s targeting ejection by hauling in another air-mailed Armstrong throw and returning it 21 yards. Pierre-Louis set NC State up in field-goal range, and though the Pack couldn’t move the ball, it put three more points on the board.
“Their quarterback in the first half really struggled with the coverages we were running,” said head coach Dave Doeren. “He was just throwing it to us. I think that was more of them doing a poor job than us taking advantage of it. Josh Pierre-Louis’s play was an exceptional play, and that was a really good catch by him.”
I mentioned in my takeaways last week that besides helping the offense, turnovers can take the pressure off a defense that’s been a leaky faucet at times and a burst dam at others. For a unit that entered the game allowing over 38 points to opposing teams, being able to bend and force a turnover is huge for driving that number down.
Case in point, when backup Lindell Stone led a third-quarter drive starting at the Cavaliers’ 24, Virginia was knocking at the doorstep of the Pack’s red zone, but redshirt freshman defensive end Terrell Dawkins came up with a huge forced fumble that redshirt junior linebacker Isaiah Moore recovered, keeping NC State’s lead at 17. Those turnovers just give the defense breathing room.
And sometimes turnovers breathe life into a team. Sometimes “two points is not two points.” With the Cavaliers cutting into NC State’s lead and the Pack’s offense struggling, junior defensive tackle Alim McNeill deflected a pass, picked it off himself and took it back 18 yards to the house for NC State’s first points of the second half, putting the team back up 17 points. That was more than a touchdown. That pick six snuffed out whatever momentum Virginia had, and it ended the game. It also inspired the offense to get going.
“We got off to a bad start in the second half, not being able to move the ball running or passing,” said sophomore running back Zonovan Knight. “So especially that play with Alim, that was the big motivation for the offense, after that everyone was like ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’ That played a huge factor in us being successful offensively in the second half.”
Between the four turnovers NC State forced, the offense scored 17 points off them, equal to the game’s 38-21 margin. Those turnovers were the difference between the Wolfpack falling back to .500 and it emerging as a surefire top-half ACC team. Offense wins games, defense wins championships, but it’s much easier to do both those things with a bit of luck on your side.
With this performance, NC State has had games that showed flashes of a great run game (Wake), great pass game (Pitt) and now great defensive play. It’s just about putting it all together, now. Especially for this defense. One game won’t erase the results it put on the field in NC State’s first three games, but it is cause for some cautious optimism.
“We’re nowhere [near] where we want to be, obviously, but as each week goes, we’re growing and growing better together,” McNeill said. “Once we reach our peak and where we want to be it’s gonna be scary, I’m not going to lie to you. Y’all are definitely seeing us becoming one of those top-tier defenses.”