After a disappointing trip to Starkville, Mississippi, Saturday evening’s 45-7 rout of the Furman Paladins may not have been the most impressive performance for the Wolfpack, but it was needed. In a final outing before the toughest opponent NC State will face all season, the offense got back on track in nearly each phase of the game which failed it against Mississippi State.
Starting with the red zone offense, the Wolfpack was 6-6 in scoring when inside the 20 with five of those drives ending in touchdowns. Then there’s the passing game, specifically deep passing. In the first three quarters against Mississippi State, the offense had just three passing plays of 15 yards or more as redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary consistently overthrew players down the field. Against Furman, though, Leary had five such plays through two quarters, including a 42-yard bomb to Anthony Smith.
Comparing Leary’s 4.4 YPA mark in the first three quarters against the Bulldogs with his 8.9 clip versus the Paladins, it’s clear that the offense had something to prove against an easy opponent, and it came out and did so.
The wide receivers rotation also changed a bit on the outside, with freshmen receivers Anthony Smith, Julian Gray, Porter Rooks and Jalen Coit seeing a jump in their snap count. Those four combined for nine receptions, 125 yards and a touchdown as Leary spread the ball around for 13 different receivers in one of his most complete games in the red and white.
“Credit to my offensive line, they did a great job of giving me time back there helping me get into rhythm, as well as the running backs, too, doing a great job of blocking and protection,” Leary said. “It all starts in practice. It's very common to hear around here that we go 1-0 every single day and just being able to take that same approach from a play by play standpoint is very important for us.”
The run game improved over the past week as well as NC State’s backs had a combined 7 yards per carry; that comes with a caveat, though. Even against an FCS opponent, the Wolfpack couldn’t really get things going to the right side of the field. It did work the middle more, however, but it isn’t great to have such a glaring weakness coming into a matchup with one of the best defenses in the country.
So NC State got better, it beat up on a no-name team and took care of business in its return to Raleigh for a three-game home stretch, but does that mean the team is ready for its boogeyman? In head coach Dave Doeren’s time at NC State, he’s beaten every team in the ACC minus three: Virginia Tech, Miami and Clemson. The former two make a bit of sense, as cross-division scheduling norms mean Doeren has seen them twice or less, but Clemson sticks out like a sore thumb as the one Atlantic team he’s never defeated.
The Tigers come to town next weekend looking like most teams are this 2021 college football season: more vulnerable than usual. Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is suffering from an illness known as “not being Trevor Lawrence,” the lack of a passing attack is affecting the run game and the lack of scoring means that despite a great defense, anything can happen late in a tight game.
All of that bodes well for NC State, except that’s not the full story. Clemson just underwent its usual early season test at home against Georgia Tech, a 14-8 victory, and typically the Tigers do not slip after they have a performance like that. Far from it, they usually bury the rest of their conference schedule.
To get a read on what could happen, you look at the little things: from the ball placement on Leary’s passes to the aforementioned inability to run to the right to Knight’s fumbling issues — and that’s just on one side of the ball. There’s a lot to like about this team and a lot to dislike about this team.
NC State didn’t do enough for one to expect a win or even a tight contest Saturday, but it’s 2021 and this is college football. Stranger things have happened.
“It's good to get a rhythm, it's good to fix things that we needed to fix,” Doeren said. “There's still more. ... We're going into the conference play now with the exception of La. Tech. And as we know, this league’s got a lot of teams in it, they can win any Saturday and we just need to build on each week and just continue to try to be better than we were the week before.”