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Clemson Tigers Host NC State in Critical Atlantic Division Showdown

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NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

NC State head coach Dave Doeren has no doubt earned the ire of Clemson fans during his tenure leading the Wolfpack. Whether it’s his domineering personality or his accusations of the Tigers cheating in their narrow win in Raleigh, Doeren has earned himself a seat right beneath only South Carolina on Clemson fans’ hate hierarchy. He’ll no doubt have his team playing with an edge when the #16 Wolfpack come to Death Valley on Saturday to square off in a battle of undefeated Atlantic Division foes.

Regardless of Doeren’s laptop accusation, NC State has effectively replaced Florida State as the Tigers’ primary legitimate competition in the ACC. Over the last three meetings, the Wolfpack have either put up a ton of yards offense (2015 and 2017) or reduced Clemson to a mere shell of itself lucky to win at its lowest point (2016). Over the last two years, a missed field goal and a crucial illegal shift penalty in the red zone wound up being the slim difference between potential victory and heart crushing defeat.

Heading into Death Valley with bitter memories of hard fought losses, the Wolfpack are confident in defeating a Clemson team with a strong defense coming into form and an offense spearheaded by an explosive rushing attack while continuing to gel around its freshman quarterback. Quarterback Ryan Finley opted to return to the Wolfpack for his final season and passed on a front-loaded 2017 NFL quarterback class. He has been nothing short of impressive this season, having already thrown for 1,621 yards, ten touchdowns, and only three interceptions. Thanks to Finley, the Wolfpack boast the nation’s sixth-best passing attack at 335.6 yards per game.

While being more of a pro-style pocket passer, he is mobile enough to escape the pocket and can scramble if necessary to pick up a few extra yards. He has good arm strength and excels at getting the ball quickly, which has been essential in negating Clemson’s pass rush. For the past two years, Finley has made Clemson pay with a bevy of flares, slants, and quickly-timed routes to isolate the Tigers’ secondary and take advantage of its linebackers in space.

The Wolfpack’s running game, however, leaves a lot to be desired. While their leading rusher, Reggie Gallaspy II, has scored seven touchdowns on the year, he only has 324 yards on 89 carries and averages 3.6 yards per play. Ranking 9th in the league in rushing yards at 144.8 yards per game, that won’t get it done against Clemson’s front seven. Unlike last year, when the Wolfpack had Nyheim Hines to keep defenses honest on the ground and the passing game, it’s apparent that Finley is shouldering the majority of the offensive load. Despite a healthy group of corners and solid play thus far, Clemson’s secondary will undoubtedly be stretched to its fullest.

The biggest question for NC State this season was finding more playmakers with the loss of Hines. This time around, Finley’s spreading the wealth around to a group of young receivers, many of whom have the needed size to play physically with Clemson’s corners. The leader of the group is junior Kevin Harmon, who leads the group with 534 yards and two touchdowns. Harmon, who finished last season with over 1,000 receiving yards, continues providing Finley a big, physical target at 6’3. Additionally, the Wolfpack’s main corps of other receivers (Jakobi Meyers, Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas) are all 6’1” or taller.

Defensively, NC State has been a bit harder to gauge, but don’t quite present the same issues they did last season. The team ranks 35th in total defense, surrendering 341 yards per game. Their front seven has remained physical despite the loss of Bradley Chubb. They excel in stopping the run, as the team ranks 13th in rush defense, surrendering only 107.4 yards on the ground. The defensive line has missed its former All-American in the pass rush, though, as the Wolfpack have only registered 13 sacks, which is good enough for 68th among college football teams. This game should be a stout test for the offensive line, which has seen its struggles in pass protection despite paving the way for the nation’s fourth-best rushing attack.

With a freshman quarterback still learning, NC State is likely to throw plenty of blitzes and unique looks in Trevor Lawrence’s direction and force him to make quicker decisions, an avenue that he has demonstrated weaknesses in thus far. NC State’s secondary hasn’t been a model of consistency, as the Wolfpack are 84th in pass defense, giving up 234 yards through the air. If Lawrence gets time in the pocket or has favorable matchups with any of Clemson’s deep receiving corps, it could be a long day for the Wolfpack secondary.

NC State’s defense doesn’t surrender a ton of points, giving up only 16.8 points per game which is good enough for 16th in the country. But, it should be noted that NC State’s game against what would have been a stout West Virginia team was canceled, and it has since played lower level competition such as James Madison, Georgia Southern, Marshall, and Virginia. Their best game to this point has been Boston College, who nearly staged a late-game comeback and played without its best player in running back AJ Dillon.

Make no mistake, NC State is the most fired up to play their division rival, and often play far above the level they’ve demonstrated. This game is effectively a winner-take-all for the Atlantic Division, as the winner effectively controls their own destiny. For Clemson, a win over #16 NC State gives it a huge resume booster that, even with a late loss later in the schedule, could all but solidify a return trip to the College Football Playoff.