Fresh off allowing 44 points to Wake Forest in a road loss, the NC State defense gets its toughest test of the season against the No. 4 Clemson Tigers and their high-powered offense. Led by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, the Tigers are averaging over 545 yards per game and are incredibly balanced, averaging 273 yards passing and 272.4 yards rushing. Here is how the Wolfpack defense matches up.
NC State’s defensive line was nearly nonexistent in the loss to Wake Forest, and that will have to change quickly if it wants to slow down Clemson. Etienne has already rushed for 1,102 yards and 11 touchdowns on just 123 carries and is one of the best running backs in the country. He doesn’t get touched near the line of scrimmage very often, and when he does, he’s always a threat to break out of a tackle.
The Wolfpack needs a big day from graduate defensive tackle Larrell Murchison and graduate defensive end James Smith-Williams. The easiest way to slow Lawrence and Etienne down is by putting pressure on Lawrence and forcing him into mistakes. If Smith-Williams can crash the pocket from the outside and Murchison can apply pressure from inside, Lawrence won’t have much time to throw downfield to his electric wide receiver duo of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.
NC State’s linebackers have slowly progressed throughout the season, and the plays of redshirt freshman Payton Wilson and freshman Drake Thomas were a couple of the lone bright spots in last week’s loss. But Wake Forest’s rushing attack pales in comparison to the one the Wolfpack will be facing this week. Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon are averaging 8.1 yards per carry as a duo, and if either slip past the defensive line and make a linebacker miss, there’s a good chance they’re off for six.
Led by junior Louis Acceus, the Wolfpack linebackers will have to play smart and disciplined against the electric duo of Etienne and Dixon. With the inexperience in the secondary, any miscues or missed tackles from the linebackers could blow the game open quickly.
The NC State secondary has the most difficult matchup of any of the Wolfpack’s position groups. At the helm of the Tigers’ offense is Lawrence, a frontrunner for the 2021 NFL draft first overall pick. He’ll be throwing to Higgins and Ross, who form the best one-two punch of receivers in the country. The two have combined for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns, but it’s how they rack up their yards and scores that will give the Wolfpack headaches all night long.
Higgins is one of the best deep threats in the NCAA, a major reason why he’s a potential top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL draft. The two-time national champion is averaging over 20 yards per reception and is a threat to take the top off the defense for a score at any given moment anywhere on the field.
Meanwhile Ross, who burst onto the scene with 12 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the College Football Playoff last year, does the majority of his work in the short and intermediate areas of the field. The sophomore has 36 catches and is averaging 12.3 yards per reception, a perfect complement to Higgins.
NC State is down three starting cornerbacks and will be relying on an extremely inexperienced secondary to slow down Higgins and Ross and make it difficult for Lawrence to find open receivers. After getting torched by Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman for 287 yards and three touchdowns, the Wolfpack secondary isn’t likely to fare much better against Lawrence and company.