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Run Down in Raleigh: The NC St. Offense vs. Clemson Defense Preview

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We didn’t force NC St. to make this game their homecoming, they did that to themselves

North Carolina State v Wake Forest Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

In college football November is about rivalry. We’ve gotten past the handful of exciting out of conference games, through most of the cupcakes and into the meat of the conference schedule. There’s history, there’s hate. Rivalry usually takes one of two forms, one is an equal matchup between competitive teams. This is the ideal game to most people, think LSU – Alabama around 2012. Then there’s the more common kind, where a better team is trying to avoid getting dragged into a game it doesn’t want to play by the nose against an opponent who’d love to ruin their season. The Textile Bowl has been that kind of rivalry lately, because Dave Doeren is good at his job and Dave Doeren is a jackass sometimes. This might be the rivalry that’s gotten under Clemson fans skin the most this side of USCe.

The 2016 game was a defensive struggle, with NC State holding Clemson to 24 points but only scoring 17 themselves (one via int. return) and losing in overtime. 2017 saw Ryan Finley light into a Clemson secondary that was running out converted receivers and future FCS transfers. Finley completed his first fourteen passes en route to a 38-31 shootout that ended with K’Von Wallace trying to return an interception for a touchdown well after time expired. There’s bad blood all around, Dabo publicly doesn’t seem to like Doeren and Dabo has something nice to say about everyone on his schedule. The 2018 game happened.

Things aren’t good in Raleigh right now. The Wolfpack are 4-4, but three of those wins came against directional Carolinas and Ball State. Their lone win in conference is against a Syracuse team that is winless in the ACC. This season has been a disappointment even relative to adjusted expectations, as NC St. is 2-6 against the spread. The defense looked like it was legitimately one of the best in the ACC before being ravaged by injuries and the sort of malaise that inflicts a defense when it loses faith in the other side of the ball. I’m a Bears fan, I know it when I see it. The offense (92nd in SP+) has been a mess and it’s getting worse with injuries.

When this offense is clicking it has the ability to mix heavy, pro style sets with spread formations and run and throw effectively from both. The goal is to maintain efficiency with horizontal passes and the running game, then try to manufacture big plays when defenses overreact. The Wolfpack offense is creative about using formation and motion to create an advantage.

They run trick plays more often and effectively than most teams. Wide receiver Thayer Thomas has thrown four times this year, good for three completions, seventy-four yards and two touchdowns.

The offense is not clicking. The running game is efficient but in-explosive. The passing game has been a disaster. The running game stops working in the red zone and the Wolfpack struggle to score.

None of this appears to be the offensive lines fault. NC St. has usually been pretty good at pass protecting and this year is no different. As long as Bailey Hockman isn’t under center they’ve been able to protect the quarterback. Boston College and Syracuse had success blitzing Hockman off the field, and some fans were clamoring for current starter Devin Leary almost from the jump. Leary completed under 40% of his passes in his first start. Everyone seems to agree the guy who started the season under center, Matt McKay, is not the answer either.

An efficient ground game has been the bright spot for this offense and given the turnover at running back I’m inclined to credit the line for that. They haven’t opened holes on the ground as well since losing both starting tackles (and tight end/team captain Dylan Auetenrieth) for the season to injury, but the performance has been admirable.

The Wolfpack prefer to run outside zone, and it suits the personnel. Starting RB Zonovan Knight as well as third stringer Trent Pennix left last weeks’ demolition against Wake Forest with injuries.

This leaves the diminutive freshman Jordan Houston (#20) as the only back on the depth chart we know is healthy. Houston is good, but at 185 lbs. he is not a between the tackles runner at this point in his career.

As Doeren put it before the game, the injury situation is “code red… we’re down to the bottom of some position groups”. Quarterback Devin Leary isn’t much of a runner and neither are any of the backups unless the Wolfpack are willing to go full Wildcat. Without the threat of the inside run Wake was able to blanket receivers in coverage and Leary was forced to make throws into tight windows.

He has the accuracy and arm strength to make that work sometimes.

While the passing game hasn’t been efficient, at all, it can occasionally produce a big play. Leary is going to make some aggressively bad decisions. The Wolfpack have liked to take shots on play-action for years now, but Leary pushes the ball downfield in a way that must make his turnover averse HC sick.

Tight end Cary Angeline (#6) is not much of a blocker, but he’s a 6’7” target with good receiving skills. He becomes particularly dangerous near the red zone, where he leads the team with four touchdowns. NC St. likes to roll their quarterback out of the pocket a fair amount off of run fakes.

The wide receivers haven’t helped their quarterbacks out much this year. Wolfpack fans seem frustrated with junior receiver Emeka Emezie (#3), who can make SportsCenter catches but drops easy throws. Tabari Hines (#5) is a useful senior but he’s limited because of his size. Besides them there’s young talent that is hopefully growing up fast. Devin Carter (#88) is a 6’4” freshman who ran roughshod over Boston College a couple weeks ago. Thayer Thomas (#87) , a sophomore, is second on the team in receptions and one of the best punt returners in the country. He’s doing everything he can. Keyon Lasane (#85) is dangerous whether they hand the ball to him or throw it. There’s significantly more productive depth at slot receiver (H in this offense) than out wide (X/Z).

The spread favors the Tigers by over thirty points. This isn’t really supposed to happen in conference games, but almost the entire ACC outside of Clemson is going through some shit right now. With games left against Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina after this, NC State is going to have to pull off a pair of conference upsets to get to .500. I do not wish them luck. It’s a lost season in Raleigh, Clemson should roll to an easy victory. But this is the Wolfpack, and they’re nothing if not pesky.