Last week I threw gas on the proverbial dumpster fire that is Miami when I challenged their assertions on Kaaya vs. Watson. With Kaaya knocked out, it is unfair and distasteful to revisit the argument. This week's column won't start any sort of drama since I am relatively high on NC State QB Jacoby Brissett. The State offense itself though? Another story entirely. Brissett is big, mobile, and strong; his statistical output is rather pedestrian, but he and running back Matthew Dayes (793 yards, 6.3 YPC, 12 TDs) are capable of moving State downfield, albeit against poor competition thus far.
NC State's advanced statistics are surprisingly impressive -- they rank 22nd overall in S&P+. The State defense actually allows less yards per game than Clemson's justifiably elite defense. However, most Wolfpack fans (or any knowledgeable football fan) will tell you State's conventional statistics are inflated by what is undoubtedly the easiest non-conference schedule of any Power 5 conference team.
The toughest opponent State faced thus far is #33 in S&P+, Louisville, who defeated the Pack 20-13. The only other opponents in the top 100? #56 Virginia Tech (lost 13-28) and #97 Wake Forest (won 35-17). Yes, their best win is against Wake Forest. If you're unfamiliar with advanced statistics, I encourage you to skim Clemson's advanced statistics profile and ESPECIALLY read Kraken's assessment on our key stats compared to recent national champions and past Clemson teams.
Before we dive in, I recommend this road trip -- but not for the normal football reasons. The stadium and tailgating are disappointingly bland and relegated to the fairgrounds, but that's where the similarities to Columbia end. Downtown Raleigh and even State's campus are pleasant, safe, and clean. The game should end around 7, meaning you have plenty of time to explore an outstanding lineup of bars and restaurants on and around Fayetteville Street afterwards.
State fans are generally passionate yet decent, or at the very least non-confrontational with Clemson fans in my experiences at Carter-Finley. They are friendly as our rivals go, and are particularly respectful when they have realistic expectations on the game's outcome. It's an easy drive up I-85/40 and there are thousands of Tigers in the Triangle. Look for me in section 210 right across the aisle from the State student section (what could go wrong amirite)?
What Does State Do Well?
First, I must admit this is the most difficult film study I have undertaken this season. I struggled to find any personnel, schemes, or tendencies with which State can challenge Clemson. They don't push tempo, don't stretch the field vertically well, and don't ask Brissett to do as much as he probably could.
NC State struggled mightily against the best defense it faced thus far, managing only two touchdowns (one on a 5 yard drive thanks to a long kick return) against Louisville. They are so methodical that their two leading receivers are the tight end/H-back and running back. I decided to look at what State did well against an above average Louisville defense...
Well, there wasn't much success to be found. State's passing game was not even intermediate, everything was short or behind the line. Everything begins on the ground for State, but its offensive line didn't move Louisville off the ball. Dayes, however, is a sneaky-good running back. He found highlight yards when he squeezed what he could out of small holes.
Difficult to see any sort of hole here, but Dayes is a good one-cut back and squeezed a hole through the A gap.
Once Dayes burst through the gap there were no defenders on the second level. One cut on the safety and Dayes is 30 yards downfield before he is cut down. Clemson should be more effective against the State OL than Louisville was, but Dayes is smart with his cuts and runs hard -- essentially a smaller Wayne Gallman, so he deserves respect.
Earlier I mentioned State's H-back is the leading receiver. Below, I want to provide a glimpse at how State uses Jaylen Samuels, since it's not often you find an H-back so prominently featured in modern offenses. On the first offensive snap against Virginia Tech, we see a pick/rub play designed to free him in the flat:
The receivers clear out the flat and Samuels runs underneath.
Samuels is a bowling ball at 5'11" 236 lbs, but has the speed to catch linebackers in bad angles. A simple flat clear-out gave State 20 yards. Now, I don't expect this sort of success against Clemson's superior athletes and usual quarters coverage, but I still expect to see this or variations of it at least 5 times on Saturday.
Another wild card is the strength of Brissett. He won't wow you with speed or shiftiness, but he moves well in the pocket and is tough to bring down when not blind-sided. State's passing game is mostly short or intermediate, but Clemson's smothering defense will eventually lead to desperate deep shots on Saturday. State doesn't have the receivers to burn Clemson deep -- barring busted coverage -- but Brissett's stability in the pocket and ability to extend plays means the deep ball is a threat if our aggressive safeties peek in the backfield.
State found success against Wake with big plays, where they ran out to a 28-0 first quarter lead. There were no more offensive points for the remainder of the game, in which the State offense reverted to Louisville game form.
I know I seem like an outrageous homer by now, but this is another overmatched opponent and it is obvious on film. Clemson's staff does not allow letdowns and this State team is not capable of rising to Clemson's level. State's best hopes are for Dayes and Samuels to break a few long runs, for the intermediate passing game to stress Clemson's linebackers, and obviously for plenty of turnovers.
Can State Stop Clemson?
NC State's defense is not bad -- how could a unit ranked third in the country in yards per game only rate "not bad?" Well they ran through laughable opponents but struggled against some of the lesser offenses in the ACC (not exactly many good offenses in the league) in Louisville and Virginia Tech. State runs a 4-3 base with a hybrid SAM, possesses two athletic defensive ends, and likes to run man coverage outside.
I can't see how State hopes to defend Clemson. The offense is too balanced with the emergence of a power running game. All month, we've heard about the potential for a Clemson letdown. It hasn't happened. All week, we've heard about Clemson falling into the "usual" trap in Raleigh. Unlike 2011 when we were prone to letdowns, Clemson is too good on the lines of scrimmage for overmatched opponents to hang close. In the past, Tajh Boyd was on or off, and Clemson went as far as he and the outstanding receivers could carry them.
Now, Deshaun Watson is steady, and Clemson doesn't even have to lean on his phenomenal talents. For the first time in a decade, Clemson has a feature running game. Combine that with one of the most talented QBs in the country and there is little State can do to stop this offense. BC's top ranked defense held Clemson to under 150 on the ground, but Watson threw for almost 450. A week later, Clemson ran for over 400 against Miami. This balance cannot be beaten without a dominant defensive line or lucky turnovers.
I don't see how the Vegas line for this game is only 10. This is not a knock on State -- whom I expect to reach 7 or 8 wins -- but Clemson could play its worst game of the season (which according to S&P+, came against Notre Dame) and still cover this spread. Even if Clemson "plays down" or whatever the pundits call for every week, Clemson is far too superior on both lines of scrimmage for this game to stay close deep into the game; not to mention the difference in skill position talent. I strive for objectivity in these columns, but Clemson's continual improvement makes it difficult to make a case for State. I hope State fans will forgive me, but when I compare film I see athleticism and coaching in completely different leagues. State will need an all-time performance and plenty of luck along the way.
Clemson 38, State 14