It turns out Clemson chose a very good week to not play. By not playing they might have had the best weekend of any team in the top 10. Now the Tigers get ready to face NC State in Death Valley in a what’s been a heated rivalry game the last couple of years. Close finishes in 2016 and 2017 as well as Dave Doeren’s personal touch have rekindled the Textile Bowl.
NC State has improved as a program under Dave Doeren, performing well on both sides of the ball thus far despite losing four defensive linemen to the draft. With FSU deep in a year zero and Miami falling to Virginia it’s entirely possible NC State is the hardest game left on the schedule. After Saturday one of these teams will have its first loss and one of these teams will have an extremely comfortable lead for the Atlantic Division.
Doeren tends to field balanced offenses. His 2016 and 2017 teams favored the pass, while his 2015 offense leaned on a strong running game. The 2018 iteration cannot run the ball well at all, ranking in the 100’s for both efficiency and explosiveness. It still might not matter. Clemson shuts down the run against everyone. Syracuse and A&M combined for 132 rushing yards on 58 carries against Clemson, but still moved the ball as well as anyone has.
Graduate Ryan Finley is back, as are five wide receivers and three starters on the offensive line. This is not a good matchup for the Clemson secondary, even with a bye week to get healthy and work on blown assignments. Finley has played well enough to win in two close loses to Clemson, putting up 337 yards and 3 touchdowns last year. The offensive line (and his quick release) have excelled keeping Finley upright, boasting a top 5 sack rate allowed. Finley, for his part, can make plays when the pocket breaks down.
The Wolfpack operate from 11 personnel, moving their tight end from the backfield to the line of scrimmage to the slot. They can run shotgun, under center or pistol formations but tend to base out of the pistol. Under center is primarily a short yardage and goal line package. A couple of times a game they’ll just run QB sneak on third/fourth and one.
The running game is built very heavily around outside zone, often with a lead blocker. NC State can’t blow anyone off the ball, so they let their offensive line either reach block defenders or drive them to the sideline while a H back lead blocks.
This will be supplemented with the occasional RPO, often either a slant route attacking the backside linebacker’s pursuit or a curl route taking advantage of soft coverage outside. Inside zone is in the playbook, typically with a bubble screen off of motion attached. The Wolfpack haven’t run it much and they don’t run it well, the same goes for their counter scheme.
The Wolfpack complement their running game with bootlegs and more traditional play action passes. The “shot” plays haven’t gone great for NC State so far, and the offense struggles to generate big plays in general. This and shaky field position ensure NC State generally has to score on long drives.
The bootlegs have hit more consistently. While Finley rarely runs himself, he can use his feet to help spring open his receivers. Given Clemson’s linebacker’s struggles in pass coverage this could be an issue.
With three starting receivers over 6’2” (and a 6’7” TE) the sidelines are a natural place for NC State to attack. Finley, in addition, seems to struggle to read the middle of the field. He’ll force some bad passes there. Fade and out routes are favorites. The occasional wheel route to a RB is mixed in to take advantage of the attention the receivers draw outside.
Combine this with an efficient quick passing game and NC State is able to keep the ball moving. Though their offense seems likely to wind up in passing downs the Wolfpack are excellent on passing downs. They convert 3rd and medium/long’s like a top five offense. Clemson, meanwhile, hasn’t been near as good on 3rd and long as the pass rushing talent on hand would suggest.
I don’t think NC State will win, but I don’t think Clemson is covering the spread either; the explosion against Wake was an outlier. This team almost lost to Syracuse the week before, and NC State can recreate a lot of what worked for the Orange. Close loses are kind of a thing for NC State. Of the ten games the Wolfpack has lost in the last two years, seven were by one possession. This is going to be a much harder game than your typical Homecoming.