This week Clemson heads to Raleigh for a game most Clemson fans seem to hate. The perception, backed up by an occasional close game or loss, is that NC State is the perfect trap game. Ahead of this game we were able to talk with the great folks over at Backing the Pack to get their thoughts on the game. Our questions are below and head over to their site for a chance to read my answers to their questions later today.
STS: NC State came into the year with a lot of talk about the defensive line. Has the performance matched the hype? And what have they been able to do well as a front 4 this year?
BTP: I believe it has. One of the best things this defensive front does is put pressure on opposing quarterbacks by getting into the backfield. In just eight games so far this season, Bradley Chubb has 16 tackles for loss by himself, and 7.5 sacks as well. A lot of the reason for their success has to do with their experience. All four starters on the defensive line are seniors, and two others that play a significant amount are juniors. It's given them an edge over most of the teams they've faced. They're also extremely strong and quick off the snap. I've mentioned this a lot this season, but Kentavius Street squatted 700 pounds before the season started, which still makes my jaw hit the floor every time I watch it.
STS: NC State's defense managed to cause quite a few turnovers in last year's game against Clemson, is that type of ball hawking defense back or was that a bit of an abnormality?
BTP: They've been about the same so far this season as they were through this point last year. NC State intercepted the ball ten times last season, and have six interceptions through 8 games this season. In terms of recovered fumbles, last season the Pack had twelve; this season they're sitting at five so far. So to answer your question, I definitely think the ability to force turnovers is back again this season. Their goal will be to put pressure on Clemson without sending the house, which is something they've done fairly well this season. There haven't been many situations where NC State has needed to rush more than four and leave the corners on an island.
STS: Breaking down your defense, who are a few of the less known names Clemson fans should keep an eye on?
BTP: I mentioned Kentavius above, who doesn't get quite as much attention as Chubb, but he's an absolute stud. Jerod Fernandez at linebacker is leading the team in tackles with sixty-nine (nice) so far this season. Another of the linebackers, Airius Moore is a tackling machine - he's not quite on the pace he was last season but he's just as important on this defense. I'd also keep an eye on Mike Stevens in the secondary. Mike missed a few games early in the season due to injury, but since he's been back he's been a big help in coverage.
STS: What will you be looking for on defense to give you an indication that NC State will be able to win this game?
BTP: Simply put, NC State needs to be able to force pressure on Kelly Bryant and try to force him into difficult throws. The biggest key for me in this game is "can NC State's defensive line best Clemson's offensive line?" Clemson's allowed 18 sacks this season, so they're going to have their hands full trying to keep Bradley Chubb and co. from adding to that number. They'll also need to prevent Clemson from making big plays against the secondary, an area where the Pack has struggled. The secondary is easily the weakest part of the defense, so limiting mistakes there will be crucial for a Wolfpack win.
STS: On offense Ryan Finley has done well at QB, but last week was not a great game. What did Notre Dame do to throw him off of his game?
BTP: Ryan Finley has been the steady hand this offense has needed this season. Prior to the Notre Dame game, he hadn't thrown an interception all season, and he's only been sacked nine times all season. This has allowed the Wolfpack offense to be very successful on offense. Part of Finley's struggles against Notre Dame were for a few reasons: 1) Without Nyheim Hines for much of the game, the offense sputtered to make plays and became pretty one dimensional since they couldn't run the ball; 2) Notre Dame's corners were just unbelievably good in that game. Lots of perfectly timed pass break ups. He also got put into situations where he had to make difficult throws, and ended up with his lowest completion percentage to date this season.
STS: Nyheim Hines is supposed to be ready to play on Saturday. Do you expect any dropoff because of his injury, and how important is he to the offenses success?
BTP: I imagine there might be some dropoff, but he is vitally important to NC State's offense. Hines gives the Pack speed in the ground game that they just don't have from anyone else. This really showed in the Notre Dame game, as once he was out of the game, the team struggled to just get to 50 yards rushing. Comparatively, when the ground game is cooking, it's common to see NC State rush for 250 some yards as a team. In the three games before Notre Dame, Hines rushed for over 100 yards each time. The Wolfpack have to find a way to get him into space if they're going to beat the Tigers in Raleigh Saturday.
STS: The NC State offense has shown a real ability to move the ball. What should Clemson fans be worried about seeing that would indicate some real NC State success on Saturday?
BTP: Piggybacking off of above, if Hines gets into open space, Clemson will be in real trouble. The same could be said for Jaylen Samuels, the uber-versatile jack of all trades of the Wolfpack's offense. Samuels has scored a touchdown in every game but two this season, and has ten touchdowns on the season. One name that has really emerged in the Wolfpack offense this season is Kelvin Harmon. He has hauled in some absolutely monster NFL-like catches this season, especially on third down. He's accounted for eight first downs from third down situations this season, so if he's able to help keep the chains moving for the Pack consistently, that will go a long way in helping the Pack beat the Tigers.
STS: What's your feeling about this game?
BTP: This game has been circled on the calendar of the Pack players for a while now after what happened last season. Like I said above, there's practically everything on the line in this game - playoff implications for Clemson, and who ultimately will likely represent the Atlantic division in the ACC title game. If NC State wins they'll be two games clear of everyone else in the division with three to play, which would put them in great shape. Simply put, whichever team wins Saturday will be heading to the ACC title game in December barring some sort of #goacc like insanity over the last three weeks.
Having to play two of the top four college football playoff ranked teams in back to back weeks is, well, insanity. And in a cruel twist of fate (because hey, that's the sort of thing I'm used to as a Pack fan), I see this game coming down to a field goal yet again. Only this time, it's Clemson with the opportunity to win it, and I think they do, 34-31.