BIG GAME ALERT. DE FACTO DIVISION CHAMPIONSHIP IN DEATH VALLEY. I DON’T CARE IF IT’S ONLY A 3:30 KICKOFF OR THAT IT’S ONLY A TOP 20 NC STATE TEAM. A BEATDOWN IS BEYOND OVERDUE; EVEN SOUTH CAROLINA DESERVES IT LESS THAN DAVE DOEREN. THIS IS THE BIGGEST HOME GAME WE’LL GET TO ENJOY ALL SEASON, AND YOU KNOW I’VE FERMENTED A NONSENSICAL, METAPHOR-LACED RANT BEFORE I EVENTUALLY TALK ABOUT DEFENSIVE FOOTBALL. AS IS BIG GAME TRADITION.
Earlier this week I wondered what sort of ex girlfriend allegory I’d dream up for Dave Doeren and how it’d compare to the takes on Kevin Steele and Jimbo Fisher. Doeren is widely reviled around these parts, and it goes without saying I would NEVER date anyone who possessed any Doeren-esque qualities. So just how far could I carry this schtick? Doeren lacks any redeemable qualities and even I, with my infrequent but consistently misguided dating endeavors, would steer well clear of any soul possessed with such bitterness.
But that’s just it: Dave Doeren is the salty ex you never actually dated. The one who always chased you but remained overlooked until the talent level in your social circle dropped so mightily you couldn’t help but notice her improvement. The first time you noticed her, you thought to yourself in passing, “huh, she doesn’t look so bad anymore, glad to see she’s getting it together. Good for her.” And you moved right along to loftier pursuits without a second thought.
Everyone knew she was after you, the biggest fish in your outgrown pond. You weren’t truly interested, something about being chased always turned you off. Sure, you had a lot in common; you hated many of the same people (what is more important in a relationship than sharing similar hates after all), but you viewed her as nothing more than a silly little sister at the absolute best.
But you were bored and there was no denying her improvement. Every time you got together you always kept yourself just out of her reach, but you had to admit to yourself she could no longer be overlooked. Yet no matter her resolve, her entirely self-perpetuated hype, you never let her seal the deal.
In your last few meet-ups, her frustrations finally got the better of her, and she revealed a startling, umm, “quirk” for physical violence which left you shaken. A good physical game is all in good fun, and even piqued your interest by surprise. But this was something else:
So once again you escaped, your lesson learned twice over. She was too desperate for your validation, too sneakily vindictive behind her passive demeanor, and could not handle yet another failure; yet another rejection at your hands. Her true colors shown, she went scorched earth the last time you pulled yourself out of her grasp: stealing your bath linens and accusing you of cheating with some made up story about your internet search history. Even though y’all were never anything at all.
You dodged the proverbial bullets, but you’re angry this time around. She’s coming into town out for blood, but you have a point to prove after letting her come far too close in recent years.
Her salt warrants a good flex.
The NC State defense was a disappointingly average unit a year ago, given the entire defensive line was drafted and the linebacking corps was experienced. All of those players, headlined by towel thief in chief Bradley Chubb, have moved on and State must replace its entire front 6/7. That such a veteran, talented outgoing unit was so mediocre boded poorly for State, and is why I was relatively down on the Pack this preseason. You don’t generally improve when you replace 8 starters on defense particularly when half that group is a line full of draft picks.
Yet here State sits 5-0, largely untested but with an extremely favorable schedule beyond Clemson. The canceled West Virginia game is one I would’ve watched closely this week and would’ve told us a lot about the improvement (or lack thereof) in the State secondary, which is where most of the culprits were found in last year’s underachieving defense.
That secondary is why Ted Roof (yes the same former head coach at Duke and most recently Georgia Tech’s perpetually soft defensive coordinator) was hired to shore up the unit and co-coordinate with the incumbent Dave Huxtable. The schematics remain largely unchanged, with State operating in a 4-2-5 nickel. This isn’t a hybrid 4-3, but a true nickel; NB Tanner Ingle is a 5’10” 180 pound freshman, so on standard downs State usually plays with tight safeties (1 at the very least) to get enough defenders in the box to defend the run:
Ignoring the tantalizing prospect of Hunter Renfrow matched against a freshman, bringing both safeties down isn’t feasible against Clemson, who is far more lethal outside than anyone State has faced or will face. State is loath to slide the undersized Ingle into the box, and will bring its free safety down instead of pinching Ingle inside. They certainly need to do so Saturday or else get run over, yet that leaves State’s corners isolated and exposed:
Thus far, State has employed mostly man cover 1 and 2 with soft coverage outside to mitigate the deep risk inherent with shallow safeties. But even in single high, the deep safety is rarely deep enough to do anything at all. State has largely gotten away with this against lesser offenses — though Ingle has been beaten deep more than his fair share without deep safety help — thanks primarily to a stronger than expected defensive line which has filled in nicely for the departed stars.
The line remains a veteran unit with plenty of meaningful snaps from last year, and is particularly active on stunts to generate the pressure needed to help out its mercurial secondary. I think it’s inevitable Clemson finds success on the ground eventually, but it won’t come on early inside zones against a stacked box and stunting line bent on quick penetration.
State will operate with only 1 (relatively) high safety on all but the most obvious passing situations; Clemson’s run game is too good to corral with a 180 pounder at a flex position. Yet State can’t bring both safeties shallow either, because then Trevor Lawrence will feast on PA and RPO skinny posts; when Dabo talks about balance, this is what he means.
The only feasible defense I see against Clemson at this point is to go with a single high safety, give every pre-snap pass key known to mankind in the hope they don’t give Travis Etienne the ball, and send delayed blitzes and stunts into Lawrence’s face before he can go through progressions. Despite his gaudy passing efficiency, Lawrence has shown he holds the ball too long and Clemson’s pass protection at guard has been awful. We’ll see plenty of stunts and late blitzes like these; it’s State’s best hope defensively:
Though State has an active front capable of getting Clemson off schedule, this looks like a clear physical and schematic mismatch against Clemson’s run game as the Tigers settle in. If Clemson faces a lot of obvious passing situations, I expect it will have more to do with Clemson’s play-calling (RUN POWER/COUNTER FOREVER) than State’s defense.
And the thing about that play-calling...with Clemson intent on taking what is given, State can manipulate Lawrence into the wrong checks like Wake Forest did early. Get Clemson into obvious passing situations, and State will bring in its own 3rd down dime pressure look where it only ramps up the stunts and overlap blitzes, all from the relative safety of deeper coverage. If State gets Clemson here with frequency, they have a great shot.
This game, believe it or not, is everything. Last weekend’s mayhem helped Clemson’s playoff chances should Clemson falter somewhere, and Clemson could get in as a 1-loss ACC champ again after all. But if that loss is Saturday, it’s all over; Clemson won’t even win the division should State emerge victorious. Look at State’s schedule and tell me where two more conference losses would come, without falling back on “well, they’re NC State, we know they’ll screw themselves out of a title because they always do.”
It's official: for the 26th consecutive year, NC State has failed to win so much as a share of a division title, regular season ACC title, or ACC tournament title in football, men's & women's basketball, and baseball. One of the most amazing streaks in college sports.— Alston Meadows (@damedsz) May 26, 2018
This dedication to mediocrity is beyond admirable; it is unparalleled. But I don’t completely buy into historical trends in college football; every team is different with rosters turning over in their entirety every 3-4 years. I for one can’t expect them to lose two more games just because other State teams fell short.
I’ve bought into the hype for this game. The exciting conclusion against Syracuse woke me from my sleepy, disinterested boredom with this home slate and I embrace whatever undue hype State brings with them. This is the most exciting era in Clemson history, and this is the only home opponent we’ll have with the slightest bit of hype until Jimbo and A&M come to town next September. A dormant rivalry awakens, and provides the best thing I can say for Doeren: he’s at the top of our hate list without a win over Clemson to his name.
So I’m bringing something back. I left it on the shelf in 2017, since what turned out to be the biggest and most consequential home game last year was in week 2 against Auburn, and the division championship clincher came against a weak FSU team lacking the usual fanfare. No, there wasn’t a home game in 2017 which earned this label. We have to go back to FSU 2015 and Louisville 2016 for the only other two such occasions. Folks, NC State 2018 is the BEER TRUCK GAME.
DABO ROLLIN’ OFF THE BUS’ AND RUNNIN’ DOWN THE HILL LIKE STONE COLD IN THE BEER TRUCK, AND WE SHALL GREET HIM IN DUE FASHION; HYSTERICS, DECIBELS, BUBBLY LIQUID YEAST:
IF THIS ISN’T YOUR #MOOD FROM NOW TIL KICKOFF YOU’RE DEAD INSIDE OR DEAD TO ME
State must replace the majority of undoubtedly the most talented defense its ever had, and Clemson’s offense is ramping up with a proper focus on its dominant run game to go along with Lawrence’s explosiveness. Meanwhile State brings in the best QB, WR, and (pass blocking) OL combinations Clemson will face; arguably one of the best in the nation. We’re in for a shootout right?
I don’t think so. Clemson can run away with this if they literally run away with this. But State will commit against the run and beg Lawrence to throw in the face of pressure up the middle. If Clemson adjusts and gets Etienne in space like they did in the 2nd half against Syracuse (RUN POWER/COUNTER FOREVER), it won’t matter how many defenders State throws into the box, but even that style of game doesn’t lend itself to a gunslinging shootout.
On the other side, Ryan Finley deserves every ounce of your respect. He won’t beat you with jaw-dropping lasers, but he makes few mistakes, is disgustingly accurate, gets the ball out quickly, and the State OL is once again elite in pass protection. Yet State lacks the pace of play and the playmakers in the backfield to remain balanced against an aggressive defensive front. There’s no Nyheim Hines or Jaylen Samuels to keep State on schedule and pressure off Finley, and Clemson will be able to get creative and disguise its pressure looks with little fear of consequence anywhere but receiver.
More importantly, Clemson will actually have more than one healthy cornerback this year and thus won’t be forced to play it safe in the back end and let State move the ball at will underneath like a year ago. It’s Finley or bust for State; I foresee him getting little to no help from a ground game based on outside zone runs, which are suicidal against Clemson’s defensive line. And with bodies at corner, Clemson can play more aggressively and force State to live on fades and contested passes; neither of which are sustainable without consistently unreal execution.
The only matchup where State has an advantage (or at least isn’t at a disadvantage) is in its quick passing game. State isn’t explosive, but they’re methodical and don’t give up sacks. Clemson will throw more fire zone blitzes (dropping a lineman and sending a linebacker) than we’ve seen yet this year in an effort to spring a free rush or sneak a lineman into a throwing lane rather than simply come after Finley, since he’s excellent at recognizing and throwing into blitzes, and conventional pressure won’t reach him in time anyway.
Saturday is when we learn if Clemson’s secondary is as improved as it’s appeared since halftime against Syracuse, and it’s the difference between a blowout and an uncomfortable game. But ultimately State has only one clear path to victory — minus mind boggling Clemson errors like we saw in 2016 — and it involves Finley throwing 50 times and approaching 400 yards himself. Clemson is too good defensively to let one approach beat it, and too balanced offensively for State to contain for long. Run the ball and win.