After defeating a Metro / Conference USA / Big East / AAC squad in their ACC opener, the Hoos make a formerly routine trip to Raleigh to face the undefeated Wolfpack in the ACC road opener. The two foes who played every year from 1977 to 2003 will square off for only the third time this decade (and first time since 2012). In another scheduling oddity, it will be the first time the teams have played consecutive contests at the same school since the Hoos visited Raleigh in 1970 and 1971.
A road win at State would be quite the statement for the Hoos. The Wolfpack, owners of a four consecutive bowl game streak (and seven of the last eight years), were picked third in the Atlantic this preseason but also secured two first place votes. State is also receiving votes in both the AP and Coaches top 25 polls.
So how do the Hoos march out of Carter-Finley Stadium with a W?
Force NC State To Win On The Ground
State's senior QB Ryan Finley is the first pro-style quarterback the Hoos have faced this season. He's also easily the best. And one of the best quarterbacks in FBS. If it weren't for Bryce Perkins, the Wahoo fans would have every right to be jealous of the Wolfpack.
On the season, Finley has thrown for 1,056 yards in only three games. That's good for 20th overall in the country. His 352.0 yards per game vaults him up to 4th highest. His completion percentage of 68.6% is 23rd best and he ranks 36th in passing efficiency. He's thrown 5 TDs against only 1 interception and taken only two sacks. And that's while averaging 40.3 pass attempts per game. He will be a formidable opponent, indeed.
But what about NC State's rushing attack?
Through three games, the Pack are averaging just 107.67 yards per game on 32 carries. That breaks down to 3.36 yards per carry. They only have two players with double digit carries on the season and neither have been especially impressive to date.
Senior Reggie Gallaspy Jr. has carried the ball 50 times for just 173 yards (3.46 per carry). Freshman Trent Pennix has just 20 carries on the season for only 62 yards (3.10 per carry). Both are bruisers as Gallaspy checks in at 5-11 and 235 pounds while Pennix measures 6-2 and 225 pounds. The Hoos will have to be mindful so as not to get run all over but the effort versus the run against Louisville was a nice step in the right direction.
And the Wolfpack's rushing offense is actually worse than Louisville's. The Cards rank 110th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing offense. But NC State ranks 118th.
But how do the Hoos bait State into pursuing the run to the detriment of their pass offense? I've never been mistaken for a defensive coordinator, but here's what I would do. In base sets, drop at least two linebackers into coverage at all times. It will help with the pass defense while giving the impression of conceding the run. At the same time, the linebackers dropping into coverage must crash hard once they key on the run play. With the youth the Hoos will be deploying at LB this game, easier said than done. But the linebackers have shown well all season even as their ranks have thinned in the middle recently.
The other, more obvious approach will be to play a lot of nickel and other defensive sub packages. With Jordan Mack's injury, this will be a likely strategy employed by the Hoos. It's logical given NC State's typical approach to offense and will help from over exposing Robert Snyder in his first collegiate start.
Sure Secondary Tackling
The Hoos recruit for height and length in the defensive backfield. It's going to be important against the Pack's receiving corps. Their top five receivers all have above average size for the position.
It's a pretty simple concept. Big, strong receivers have two advantages: catching contested balls and being difficult to tackle. The UVA secondary has struggled at times this season on 50/50 balls, especially against Indiana and Ohio. Even if that continues, it's going to be important to wrap up and make tackles immediately. The Hoos cannot allow the Pack's big receivers to run free after the catch while accumulating broken tackles and yards after the catch.
If the secondary doesn't strap it on tight and come ready to hit, Finley and company will make it a long afternoon at Carter-Finley.
Win With The Offensive Line
Fair, or not, the UVA offensive line has been maligned the last several seasons. But giving credit where its due, they answered the bell against Louisville and played their best game this season. And perhaps their best game dating back to October 2017 or so. The Cards didn't have an imposing defense but they are aggressive and try to attack the opponents' offense. Things really began to come together late in the first half and continued throughout the second half.
To date, the Hoos have deployed the same starting five across the OL this season. Left to right, it's been Nelson, Glaser, Reinkensmeyer, Fieler, and Applefield. However, I really liked the lineup often seen on the field together in the second half against Louisville.
Again, left to right: Haskins, Nelson, Reinkensmeyer, Fieler, and Applefield. That was the lineup when Bryce Perkins hit Joe Reed on this pass.
Sprinkle in liberal doses of jumbo tight end Ryan Swoboda and a healthy rotation of RJ Proctor and Chris Glaser, and the OL can be ready to maul and form a tidy pocket.
This becomes especially important when realizing that NC State is in the midst of replacing six of its front seven from last season. Their defense is vulnerable and yet to be challenged. Games against James Madison, Georgia State, and Marshall have helped work out the kinks. But the Hoos' offense will prove to be a step up in difficulty, especially with Perkins leading the attack.
In the season opener against JMU, State gave up 79 yards rushing to the Dukes' QB, former Pitt signal caller Ben DiNucci. He picked those yards up on only 14 carries. DiNucci isn't a stiff by any means, but the Wolfpack have no idea what's lurking in the UVA backfield either.
It's still going to be a challenge, however, as NC State sports the nation's 22nd ranked rushing defense. It gives up only 108 yards per game on the season to date. It remains to be seen how much of that is based on the defense's ability and how much is based on the opposition.
The Wolfpack's pass defense is much more vulnerable to date. It ranks only 86th nationally surrendering 238 yards per game.
Combine the two and they have the 46th overall defense on the season.
All of this works out to an approach where the Hoos can use their offense to play keep away with the Wolfpack. A strong ground game featuring the usual suspects and a short passing attack geared towards ball control is the recipe to further slow down NC State's offense.
None of this happens without the OL leading the way. But if they can open consistent holes on the ground and keep their QB upright, then they'll be able to claim a large share of the responsibility for a statement victory.
Make no mistake, the Wolfpack are the best team the Hoos have played to date. And they certainly have the most challenging offense to appear on the schedule so far. Playing on the road exacerbates this challenge. It's not to say that the Hoos aren't up for it, however.
All signs point to a close, competitive football game.
Where I see danger is the absence of Jordan Mack and an inability to make Finley uncomfortable in the pocket. To offset these, the Hoos must win the turnover battle and get at least 125 yards on the ground from Jordan Elis.
Unfortunately, I see State eking out a close one without covering the spread.
NC State survives, 28 to 24.