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NC State’s Defense Provides Clemson a Mulligan

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NC State can do what Georgia Tech did, but will Clemson be ready for any wrinkles?

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

I didn’t realize how much I missed this game.

Not because the Textile Bowl was shelved in 2020 thanks to a whacky makeshift schedule, but because the Wolfpack program has been closer to bottom shelf since some really fun contests from 2015-2017. The Pack fell off a bit after 2017 but still had Ryan Finley to lead them into a ranked matchup against the eventual national champions a year later, but that game was never competitive and proved NC State’s brief window had shut. The last meeting in 2019 doesn’t even merit discussion.

NC State brought back an experienced team and duly raised expectations this season, but not the same talent level they enjoyed particularly in 2017. A dud at Mississippi State brought Wolfpack fans’ expectations back to the norm, and we in Upstate SC looked around the schedule with disdain bordering on disinterest.

Then Clemson laid its own egg against Georgia Tech in an ugly win, and the Wolfpack blood is up.

All week we’ve seen takes on Clemson’s vulnerability, and how State again finds a window to take a step forward in the race for the ACC Atlantic. Those in Raleigh have talked themselves into belief again, but more so due to Clemson and their struggles than anything positive State has shown. The overarching narrative though isn’t outlandish at all: this is State’s best chance for a consequential conference win in the modern era (or ever?), and looking at their experienced roster versus Clemson’s new talent, the last shot for some time.

Fortunately for you readers State’s defense offers me the opportunity to talk scheme instead of players. This is actually good news for State as well, given their best player in linebacker Payton Wilson is out for the year and I wouldn’t fool many of you if I pulled film on and gushed about many other glaring threats on their roster. It’s late into a busy work week for yours truly so this will be narrative-heavy instead of gif-heavy, but once this quarter ends and my cousin gets hitched next week, I’ll have a lot more bandwidth for the back half of the season.

One of the many reactions to Clemson vs Georgia Tech is the scheme Tech threw at Clemson — it’s structurally similar to State’s base 3-3-5 scheme — showed how to stifle Clemson’s clunky offense.

First, I want to get this out of the way: the notion Tech provided a “blueprint” to stop Clemson is completely overblown. Clemson stops itself just fine on its own, thank you very much. Tech caught Clemson off-guard (a different, more alarming issue altogether), but actually gave Clemson much-needed reps against odd fronts and deceptive boxes...just in time to play a defense which likely attacks Clemson the very same way.

I’m not going to say Clemson will flip a switch after a scare and suddenly play to their gaudy potential — a more veteran offense perhaps would — but the Tigers should indeed look sharper given the staff will have them at least more prepared than a week ago.

State has run a 3-3-5 since coordinator Tony Gibson arrived in 2019. They’ll run different fronts and alignments from it, from stacked looks against more passing-inclined teams like Mississippi State:

A 3-3-5 stack (linebackers are literally “stacked” on top of the linemen in front of them) with a split safety look to deter the deep ball. Looks familiar!

To over fronts and crowded boxes against more plodding or vertically-challenged teams like Furman:

Against Furman’s 21 and 12 personnel, State aligned in an over front in what often looked more like a 3-5-3

The alignments vary by call as much as formation, of course, but the front will determine everything for a Clemson play-caller who is more analytical and reactive than headstrong and instinctive. The good news is the analytical mind can reverse-psychologize himself into a game plan which should be adequately prepared to face a more familiar defensive mind and structure.

Predating Gibson, State used to be a soft man and cover 4 defense behind a loaded box bent on suffocating the run. State was difficult to run against, even in 2018’s blowout, but always vulnerable through the air even behind soft coverage. And though now they’ll run the inverted cover 2 afforded by a 3 safety base, and plenty of blitzes from cover 3 in whichever front alignment they employ, their overall philosophy hasn’t changed much despite the new structure: they like to throw numbers at the line no matter how few seem to be in the box, and play soft, off coverage on the back end.

This looks like a light box right? Yet the front 6 still crashes and stifles the run with ease. This isn’t a TITE 3-4 front (think back to UGA’s mint front) with the DE’s shaded inside to 4i technique to cover the guards, they’re out wide and leaving the guards to climb to the linebackers in the old fashioned 3 man front, even technique. Putnam and Tate will have to not whiff and not miss their assignments, respectively, if State lets them climb like this.

Yes, this is exactly what Georgia Tech did. Yes, it’s time for Clemson to force their game on an opponent and dictate with scheme; not just react to what the defense “gives” and get by with the bare minimum a sizable talent advantage allows in this conference. Given the angst around the matchup and newfound stakes, this is the week we should begin to see things come together.

My own concerns with the Clemson offense aside, I don’t think this Wolfpack team has the dudes to pull it off on either side of the ball unless the Clemson defense suffers a letdown. That 2017 State team had a couple of elite playmakers, the best pass blocking offensive line I’ve seen in some time, an NFL defensive line, and Finley to pull the strings. Strap me to a polygraph and I’d argue they were probably the best team in the ACC that year and Clemson was just more disciplined and fortunate to escape with a tight road win.

I mean, State lost at home to Kelly Bryant at quarterback and Ray-Ray McCloud playing cornerback between national championship seasons for the Tigers. That was a GAPING window in hindsight. Clemson is vulnerable right now, but State will have to play above themselves in a way their better teams couldn’t a few years back.

Clemson saw this defense a week ago. State is more talented than Tech, up front at least, and there will be wrinkles. It might be the toughest road environment on the schedule too. But 17 points wins this game, and despite Clemson’s struggles there’s no comparison between the personnel on either side. We see Clemson show improvement this week.

Clemson 23, NC State 10