Before the season began not many believed that the game against NC State in October would decide the division for the 2nd straight season. Despite how much some Clemson fans loathe NC State, and particularly Dave Doeren, NC State is building a quality program that seems to be making consistent strides. They have come painfully close to knocking off the Tigers in back-to-back meetings, and now a veteran Wolfpack team will be starving for a Win. However, there are areas on the field where the Tigers hold a significant advantage. That edge might be in experience, or talent, but these 3 areas will go a long way in determining how successful Clemson’s Saturday afternoon will be in a battle of unbeaten teams.
The ACC is the only P5 conference with more than one undefeated team (Clemson and NC State) and they're playing on Saturday. Biggest game of the week.— Heather Dinich (@CFBHeather) October 15, 2018
NC State LBs vs. Clemson’s Run Game
The first matchup Clemson should be able to exploit is in it’s own run game. NC State was very thin at LB heading into the season, and suffered another blow when talented Freshman Payton Wilson went down for the year in the pre-season. Germaine Pratt, a Redshirt Senior leads the ACC in Total Tackles, and is easily the most experienced member of the group. After Pratt, the starter at MIKE is Redshirt Freshman Isaiah Moore, and to mitigate the issue of depth at the position, at Nickel is true Freshman Tanner Ingle.
So while depth is already less than adequate, the unit’s issues are amplified by the fact that Ingle sits at a whopping 5’10, 180 pounds. This presents a huge opportunity for Clemson to run the ball. While NC State has a veteran Defensive Line, their LB core is inexperienced, and while Ingle is deployed, it’s a corps that’s undersized. Clemson has run the ball effectively over the last few weeks and has ridden Heisman hopeful Travis Etienne to countless explosive plays and almost as many touchdowns. If the Tigers’ OL is able to climb to the second level quickly, Clemson has a chance to bully NC State’s linebackers. Last year NC State had LBs make mistakes and it led to a 80 yard TD run from Tavien Feaster in the 4th Quarter. Can Clemson repeat plays like that one on Saturday? Although State’s run Defense is statistically one of the best in the country, they have yet to face a real challenge on the ground capable of seriously challenging their LBs.
NC State’s Pass Rush vs. Trevor Lawrence
Gone is the ferocious Wolfpack DL that featured 4 players drafted into the NFL, but their is still talent in the DL cupboard in Raleigh. The DL has held up very well against albeit average rushing attacks, but to their credit the unit has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher. While the Defense has statistically done well against the run, they have failed to generate a lot of sacks. Currently tied for 68th in the country with 13 sacks as a team, if the Wolfpack want to defeat Clemson it looks like they’ll have to send extra blitzers in order to get pressure. If NC State does not force Trevor Lawrence into quick/rash decision they will not have a shot to win on Saturday.
The Tigers’ OL has done a poor job of holding up in pass protection so far this season, but their jobs might not be as difficult as they have been this upcoming weekend. If NC State fails to generate a pass rush on the true Freshman QB he may carve them apart. Lawrence continues to mature every week, and as he matures the passing game is rapidly improving. Having a balanced attack both through the air and on the ground would be huge for the Tigers’ success in this game. This also means Clemson should be taking full advantage of the pressure through a big play when it is inevitably used against them. Clemson’s line still must improve in pass protection, and so it needs to be able to take advantage of a DL that’s not as adept at getting pressure as other lines they have faced.
NC State’s Run Game vs. Clemson’s DL
NC State’s run game this year has been BAD. When I say bad I really mean that; NC State’s rushing attack is currently 120th in the country in total rushing yards, 99th in rushing yards per attempt (3.9 ypc), and 91st in Rushing TDs (9). The loss of Nyheim Hines has obviously proven to difficult to overcome for NC State’s rushing attack this season. NC State’s starting RB Reggie Gallaspy is averaging a mere 3.6 ypc, while backup true Freshman Ricky Person has yet to score a TD despite some thought that he could end up being State’s best back this season.
Since they're not strong running this year, their RZ offense is not good. Here, after getting stuffed twice, the zone blitz fools Finley and he throws an INT to the DE. Gee I wonder if Clemson will be zone blitzing at all? pic.twitter.com/REWSvcjxqg— Tolley Jenkins (@tolleyjenkins) October 17, 2018
This is no doubt a huge mismatch for the Wolfpack, and it’ll be interesting to see how much NC State really commits to the run this weekend. They have been ineffective running the football against inferior competition up to this point, so there is no reason to expect anything different against a DL as dominant as Clemson’s. At the same time, so much of what State does is predicated on play action, so it will be very interesting to see how they can adjust to this disadvantage. NC State has a very good offensive line, but it’s a line that has struggled to blow people back all season long. I imagine Clemson will be able to stop the run on most downs with just it’s front 4, allowing its back 7 plenty of extra leeway to defend Ryan Finley’s arm. Assuming the Tigers are able to mitigate State’s run game, Finley will likely have to throw for over 400 yards in order for the Wolfpack to come out victorious.