Matt Carter of TheWolfpacker.com, one of the foremost authorities on N.C. State sports, was kind enough to provide Tar Heel Illustrated with a comprehensive breakdown of the Wolfpack heading into Saturday's rivalry battle in Carter-Finley Stadium.
The Wolfpack (4-4) desperately need a victory over the Tar Heels (6-3) to improve its bowl chances, but obviously it's much more than that. NCSU has beaten Carolina four straight times, and given the sparring comments made this week between head coaches Everett Withers and Tom O'Brien, this game has taken on an entirely new significance.
Much has been said and written about the switch at N.C. State at quarterback this season from Russell Wilson to Mike Glennon. How has Glennon handled the pressure of being a first-year starter, especially in light of replacing Wilson? How has he performed well this season, and where has he struggled? And just how key will his play be against the Wolfpack?
Glennon is a mature, laid back young man. He has handled the pressure as well as anyone could have imagined. He does not seem to get rattled easily. In terms of performance, he's been up and down as to be expected for a first-year starter. I think the bottom line is that Glennon is a capable quarterback.
He has one of the strongest arms you'll see in a signal caller and can make all the throws. He's not mobile, but he has shown signs of being able to move around in the pocket and buy just enough time to get a receiver open. To me, the biggest key will be what kind of help will he get. Will the offensive line block well and will the receivers get open? Both of those have been issues at times this year.
NCSU's secondary leads the ACC in interceptions with 16, and David Amerson in particular has emerged as one of the top defensive backs in the country. Yet the Wolfpack are allowing over 235 passing yards per game, and have given up multiple big plays through the air. How would an insider explain the State secondary's penchant for big plays, combined with statistically allowing below-average yardage defense totals to opposing teams?
Some of the struggles in defending the passing game is a credit to the teams they have played. Wake Forest, Cincinnati and FSU all had quarterbacks that can air it out and receivers that can make plays. They are tough offenses to defend. FSU and Wake are ranked No. 1 and 4 respectively in passing offense this year in the ACC. Even Central Michigan has a potent passing attack. Their average would be fifth in the ACC, and their QB ranks among the all-time school leaders in passing yards.
Having said that, State has also struggled to get consistent pressure and containment, which in particular was an issue against Cincinnati and FSU. Against Wake, Chris Givens really burned the Pack pretty good. State though has two pretty good DBs with ball skills in Amerson, who has eight picks, and safety Brandan Bishop, who had four picks last year and four more thus far this year.
Break down NC State's offensive and defensive lines. How have these units performed this season, and just how crucial will line play be Saturday against UNC?
The offensive line has been an enigma. At times they have impressed. They did not give up a sack to Virginia or Wake Forest on the road, which is impressive considering how Glennon is not a dual threat. They also held their own against Georgia Tech, giving up just two sacks and rushing for over five yards a carry.They only gave up one sack to CMU as well.
However, they simply were not good at all at Cincinnati and struggled with FSU's potent rush. In their defense, a lot of teams are going to struggle against the Noles' defensive line. There's a reason why they lead the ACC in sacks per game and rushing defense. There is talent on the State offensive line, and they are probably a year away from being one of the better ones in the league. The question is which offensive line will we see Saturday?
The defensive line has been a mess because of injuries. They lost their best defensive end, Jeff Rieskamp, for the year after just one game, and their best overall lineman, J.R. Sweezy, has been sidelined for the vast majority of the season with his foot injury. Top reserves Thomas Teal, Brian Slay (now a starter) and A.J. Ferguson have all missed games with injuries, and Darryl Cato-Bishop, a starter at defensive end, missed time against Cincinnati with a hand injury. Markus Kuhn has played very well all year inside, and State has shown some noted improvements against the run lately.
Their effort against UVA was impressive. They held the Cavs to 70 yards under its season average and lowest rushing total of the year. They've moved Slay from inside to outside, so it's a physical, big group, but not a strong pass rushing unit either. If the defensive line can help contain Giovani Bernard, that will be huge for State and certainly a key component in the outcome of the game Saturday. Offensively, it goes without saying the line has to keep Glennon on his feet.
Discuss State's injury situation. Which guys are definitely going to be out for Saturday's game, and which players are doubtful or questionable?
It has gotten better. State will be without a key linebacker in D.J. Green. He hurt his foot against FSU. They have a capable senior replacement in Dwayne Maddox, but Maddox is not as athletic as Green. Starting fullback and special teams demon Taylor Gentry is still out. He is the only other injury of note definitely out.
The others are players that are out have been so for the entire season, or in the case of Rieskamp out since the first game. The good news for State is that Teal may make his return. He's a big body at defensive tackle and was having an impressive debut game against Liberty when he broke his foot. He actually fractured it on a play where he had a sack. How much Teal would be able to play if he does even go is questionable though.
It's no secret that N.C. State always gets up to play North Carolina---at least over the past several years. Tom O' Brien's 4-0 record against UNC despite a losing record against everyone else in the ACC attests to that. Does this year's UNC game have any bearing on O' Brien's job status? And exactly how do you think O' Brien has gone about preparing his team for this huge rivalry game coming off getting shut out in Tallahassee?
It's tough to say on O'Brien's job status. He has legitimate excuses for why they are 4-4. Few teams in the country would have the depth in the front seven to survive what the Pack has been through. (State also lost its best playmaker at linebacker in Terrell Manning and for two games and top reserve in Sterling Lucas for the year to go with all defensive line injuries). Getting to a bowl game though would make life a lot easier for everyone, and a win Saturday is part of the most likely path since State has to win three of its last four and will be decided underdogs against Clemson Nov. 19.
As for O'Brien's preparations, he had former receiver Torry Holt give a speech to the team after Thursday morning's practice, but overall O'Brien just gets rivalries. He played in the Army-Navy games. He knows how important preparation is for these games, and I expect they have been mainly focused on being as prepared as possible for Saturday.