I don’t like North Carolina State football. That’s ironic given how many of my friends have passed through or are currently in Raleigh, but we all make mistakes and I care about my friends in spite of this. I can’t tell you where this animosity was born from.
Maybe it was a couple of heart attack close games in 2016 and 17. Maybe it was Dave Doeren being so confused by the concept of a social media team that he accused the Tigers of cheating for the simple crime of posting. Maybe it’s that Dave Doeren’s face looks like a turtle. Maybe it’s that their mascot looks like a Steamboat Willy-era Mickey Mouse cartoon that went rabid and escaped into the Carolina backwoods. Ok, that last part I kind of like despite myself.
I do know the exact second I saw K’von Wallace extend a middle finger to the Wolfpack was the moment I realized I was hooked on this rivalry. You see, the best rivalries in college football aren’t built around competitive excellence or a tight back and forth matchup. No, they’re based on proximity, somewhat obscure local history, and really, really hating those folks over there. The best rivalries aren’t dignified bouts that bring out the best in people but unbecoming fights in the mud against people you consider yourself better than for no explicable reason. They’re a little stupid and completely serious at the same time.
The Tigers lead this series by a margin of two to one, haven’t lost since 2011, and haven’t been in a close game since 2017. This does not matter to me at all - I hate North Carolina State. It does not need to make sense to be deeply felt. The fundamental concept of a Textile Bowl confuses me and I am still willing to die over this.
Fortunately for Tigers fans, North Carolina State had a pretty bad day on offense in their one game against a P5 school this year. I know it felt like he was going to be in college forever but I double-checked and Ryan Finley isn’t walking through that door. Devin Leary, one of the passers who replaced Finley, is back as the starting quarterback after suffering a broken fibula last year.
Leary is fine. He’s posting career-highs in completion rates (67.3%) but still doesn’t complete as many passes as you’d want, given that he only throws for a little over seven yards per attempt. The optimist would tell you this is his best statistical season. The pessimist would tell you that improving all the way to 66th in completion percentage and 69th in yards/attempt is mediocre at best. The internet commenter says “nice” because 69 is a funny number.
I’m inclined to side with the pessimists. Leary has some clear issues throwing the ball outside the hash marks that consistently handcuff the NC St. offense.
He’s just not able to consistently throw the ball to the right place on quick passes, and he has missed multiple wide-open receivers deep.
He does not have the touch to make throws outside the hashes or down the field consistently, and it neuters the offense's ability to stretch the field.
Leary has a strong enough arm to hit these passes, especially up the middle of defenses, but coordinators can live with it given his inaccuracy. Leary knows this too and looks to attack underneath. Drives with him at the helm meander more than move downfield.
He’s got some weapons to get the ball to. Emeka Emezie (#86) and Devin Carter (#88) are a good pair of deep threats and Thayer Thomas (#5) can do damage underneath from the slot. Porter Rooks (#4) is a talented freshman averaging twenty-plus yards per reception. The Wolfpack receivers can make some things happen after the catch and this is a strong screen team. They’re happy to throw three screens in a row if your defense doesn’t adjust.
The tight ends are just sort of there in this offense. Dylan Parham (#28) is a fine enough blocker with exactly two receptions to his name across 80+ snaps. Former RB Trent Penix (#6) and former WR Christopher Toudle (#29) have transitioned into the H-back role, where they are not exactly setting the world on fire either. Toudle is the best receiver of the trio but none of them are featured targets.
Leary has gotten pretty good at dink and dunk passing and won’t turn the ball over unless under pressure. Things get different under pressure.
Leary isn’t a statue but he doesn’t run so much as he does scoot, and like most human beings his ability to hold onto a football noticeably degrades while being hit by a defensive lineman. If you can get pressure on Leary he’s noticeably more turnover-prone than his TD/INT ratio would suggest.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck likes to get his running backs involved in the passing game. He does this first with a series of swing routes and screens underneath, then with wheel routes looking to get running backs matched up with linebackers underneath. If you can block long enough for these routes to develop it’s almost always a win for the offense.
Beck has also historically been fond of using his quarterbacks like battering rams in the run game. If you watched Texas football with Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger you know what I’m talking about. Leary cannot and will not do that so Beck has had to retool his running game to focus on backs Zonovan Knight (#7) and Ricky Person Jr. (#8).
The two RB’s are the engine of the offense. So far this season when they average above four yards per carry the Wolfpack are putting up forty-five points. Against Mississippi State, they combined for just fifty yards on sixteen attempts and NC State only scored a touchdown late in the fourth with the game out of reach.
The basis of the running game is the outside zone, preferably behind a tight end and/or H-back. Knight in particular is excellent at reading his blocks and cutting back when the defense over pursues. Because he can attack so many different places depending on how defenses react to this play the running game doesn’t need to be particularly complicated.
Outside zone, counter, and inside zone make up the vast majority of the calls, in that order. There are RPO’s and option reads within the offense, and although you’ll occasionally see Leary reading unblocked defenders, they are neither emphasized nor particularly well run. The Wolfpack are a pretty good bootleg play-action team though.
Beck tries to use jet motion to confuse the defense but one, rarely actually gives the ball to the player in motion, and two, Leary has fumbled off this exact look. This play works less because of the motion and more because NC State’s offensive line does a good job blocking the second level and the Wolfpack backs are dangerous in space. Beck is always trying to find ways to feature both of them. The Ricky Person Jr. Wildcat experiment appears to be dead on arrival though.
It’s hard to see a way that NC State can win unless the Clemson offense no-shows, which is, unfortunately, a complete possibility. But a pro-style running game plus an inconsistent quarterback who struggles under pressure and can’t stretch the field is not a recipe to test this defense.
It’s harsh and often reductive to single one player out (and this wouldn’t be a problem if the offensive line was better with run blocking), but the limits Leary has place a real and immediate ceiling on this team's ability to score. The defense should be able to keep cruising on Saturday, but weird things happen in rivalries.