The Clemson Tigers (2-1, 1-0 in ACC) travel up to Raleigh, NC, to take on the NC State Wolfpack (2-1, 0-0 ACC) at 3:30 PM EDT this Saturday. The Tigers are coming off an ugly win at home against Georgia Tech, in which the offense once again struggled. Clemson is still favored to beat the Wolfpack, but there is now a lot more doubt for the Tigers going into this matchup than they have seen in most ACC contests in recent years.
STS: I know I asked this a similar question a couple of years ago, but wanted to get your perspective at this time: NC State, for all of its middling success in the ACC over the years, has a rich recent history of quarterbacks (Ryan Finley, Jacoby Brissett, Mike Glennon, and Philip Rivers going further back), but has been underwhelming at the position since Finley. Devin Leary, who, like me, is from New Jersey, got some action the past couple of years but now seems to have firmly taken the starter’s role. What have you seen out of him so far this year? Can he lead NC State to a big season?
BTP: He’s shown some rust after missing the bulk of last year, which I think goes to show how costly his injury was from a development perspective. As good as he was last year when he did play, he still has barely a half dozen starts since the beginning of 2020.
He has a lot to prove on the field, including how he can handle a big game like this one, and he for sure has got to get better for NC State to have a big year—win nine games, say. He’s capable, but not there yet, though it’s likely that he will keep getting better the more he settles into the routine of playing. He’s got some work to do before he merits mention in the same breath as those other guys.
STS: Both of these teams have a loss already, where each one struggled to score points against an SEC foe. What specific issues did that 24-10 loss at Mississippi State on Sept. 11 illuminate to you?
BTP: Part of me wants to throw out that Mississippi State game as useless given the size of the egg that NC State laid, but I suppose every performance is instructive to some extent. I’m still not convinced that the Wolfpack can run the ball effectively against a team with a pulse; I’d hoped to see progress in that respect against MSU but there was none. The ground game was a serious problem last season and I fear that’ll again prove the case this year.
STS: Clemson has struggled mightily on offense this season. How do you think this Wolfpack defense can continue to give them trouble? Where might the defense be vulnerable? And who are some specific players to watch on that side of the ball?
BTP: There was a lot to like about the defense against Mississippi State, and the first-stringers were dominant against the two cupcakes as well. So far they’re playing like a unit with a good mix of talent and experience, and I think they’ll hold up over the course of the season—barring a rash of injuries, anyway.
The run defense has been outstanding and I’d imagine they’ll be aggressive early on to try to put pressure on Clemson’s struggling passing game. Normally this might be a bad idea no matter the other team’s struggles, but NC State has a lot more depth on the back end than it has had in the past.
State lost linebacker Payton Wilson to a season-ending injury after Week 2, leaving a huge hole to fill in the middle of the defense, and how well opponents are able to exploit it will tell us a lot. We’re not sure how much of a liability we have there yet.
Isaiah Moore and Drake Thomas both are playmakers at the other linebacker spots, while Tanner Ingle is a difference-maker in the secondary. The defensive line needs to do a better job of getting home on passing downs but has been solid overall, and will rotate a lot of guys to stay fresh.
STS: On the other side of the ball, Clemson’s defense has been fantastic through three games. They are the only FBS team that has not yet surrendered a touchdown on defense. How would you like to see NC State attack this Clemson defense? And who are some other players we should watch for on the Wolfpack offense?
BTP: This seems like a game where NC State’s vertical passing game is going to have to show up, because like I mentioned earlier, I’m not at all confident in the offense’s ability to run the ball against a decent defense, much less one as loaded as Clemson’s.
On the bright side, running back Bam Knight is really good at running through contact and creating yards out of spots, so he’s capable of breaking chunk plays even if the blocking in front of him is less than optimal.
At receiver, Thayer Thomas is always a critical piece, and I think Devin Carter needs to have a strong game on the outside as well.
STS: It’s time for another check-in on the general Wolfpack fan perception of Dave Doeren, and the job he’s doing in Raleigh. Earlier this year, his contract was extended through 2025, so the powers that be seem to like him well enough. What’s your overall take? And do you anticipate any more drama or laptop investigations with Dabo Swinney? (Sorry, I had to get that one in.)
BTP: I think we are over any laptop- or hand-towel-related drama. Or at least I hope so.
Doeren’s approval rating took a pretty big hit after the Mississippi State game, which is understandable since his problem throughout his tenure has been an inability to deliver marquee wins. MSU isn’t a great team, but a road win in the SEC would have counted for a lot, perception-wise.
I feel the impatience that’s there, totally get it—Dave’s been here nine years and many are convinced he’s taken the program as far as he can. But he also deserves a lot of credit for getting NC State back to this point, considering what he had on hand when he took over the program. His ability to get the team back on track after the 2019 disaster was a good coaching job as well. As long as he’s delivering winning seasons, I don’t think he should be going anywhere.
STS: OK, prediction time. Given Clemson’s anemic offense so far, it seems NC State might have a fighting chance against them this Saturday. As of this writing, Clemson is a 10-point favorite, which is a much lower number than we’ve seen in recent matchups. Do you think NC State pulls off the upset? What’s your final score prediction?
BTP: Seems like NC State has to be due one of these years, but I look at Clemson’s defense and all I see is bad news. I bet NC State will score more than Georgia Tech or Georgia, though. That’s my bold prediction. Give me Clemson by a 24-17 margin.
Another big thank-you to Steven for sharing his thoughts. To see my answers to his questions, head over to Backing the Pack, here.
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