After finishing up non-conference play at 3-1, the NC State Wolfpack look to build on their first four games as ACC play begins. The Pack started 2-0 with dominant wins over Eastern Carolina and Western Carolina. But things didn’t go as smoothly when they traveled to West Virginia for their first test of the season, losing 44-27. After the loss to the Mountaineers, head coach Dave Doeren promised a “very angry” version of his football team versus Ball State in Week Four. However, the Wolfpack’s mediocre performance against the Cardinals was anything but impressive, winning 34-23. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was a good win,” said Doeren. As a result, Doeren will hope to see his team correct previous mistakes in the upcoming game against the Florida State Seminoles (2-2) and start ACC play on the right foot.
Wolfpack Preparing For First ACC Clash
Offense Looking for Rhythm
Once the Wolfpack’s competition increased after week two, the offense has looked like anything but a well-oiled machine. Although they put up 27 points on the road in Morgantown, sophomore quarterback Matt McKay struggled (23/48, 207 yards), and the Pack mustered only six points in the second half. McKay’s accuracy was imprecise, and his receivers didn’t do him any favors. The team was hoping to clean this up against Ball State, but it didn’t happen. As a consequence, they had five dropped passes in the game and scored just one offensive touchdown in the second half to go along with five first downs and only two completed passes.
Doeren compares the offensive struggles to missing layups. “I’m more concerned about the layups we’re missing,” Doeren said. “We throw a great pass to Emeka and he doesn’t catch that ball. Those are the kind of plays [that hurt us].”
An example that Dave Doeren used of a layup NC State needs to make on offense. The first play of the third quarter pic.twitter.com/NBPFmchaM6
— Joe Giglio (@YellowPadStats) September 25, 2019
If the Pack expects to come out of Tallahassee with a win, the offense will have to find its rhythm. This all starts with McKay’s accuracy and his receivers making those ‘layups.’
Special Teams Stepping Up
After an embarrassing special teams performance versus West Virginia, the Wolfpack bounced-back against Ball State. The main highlight was a 76-yard punt return by receiver Thayer Thomas. Before Thomas’ return, the Pack had gone 22 games without a special teams touchdown. The first since Nyheim Hines had a 92-yard punt return for a touchdown at Pittsburgh in 2017. The Pack also had a blocked punt in the fourth quarter which set up the NC State offense for their only score in the second half.
“I feel like special teams in the second half really won us the game,” Thomas said.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) September 22, 2019
As the offense continues to struggle at times, the special teams ability to get the ball in good field position will be critical for the Wolfpack’s success against Florida State and the rest of ACC play.
NC State did receive some good news ahead of the game against Florida State when it was announced that redshirt senior defensive lineman James Smith-Williams would return to the team in some capacity. Also, after straining his hamstring in the Ball State game, freshman running back Zonovan Knight has been cleared to play in Saturday’s contest in Tallahassee.
But with the good news, also came bad news. In his weekly press conference, Doeren announced that senior cornerback Nick McCloud would miss his third straight game, and redshirt junior tight end Dylan Autenrieth would miss the rest of the 2019 season. The Wolfpack are optimistic that McCloud will be back for their contest against Syracuse on October 10th.
“We’re missing some key parts right now,” said Doeren.
The Wolfpack went into West Virginia having not allowed a touchdown. However, that changed less than six minutes into the game. The Wolfpack allowed a total of 44 points, 445 total yards, and 173 rushing yards on 28 attempts. The defense improved against Ball State, forcing two fumbles, intercepting a pass in the endzone, and picking up two sacks. But the Pack’s secondary got burned yet again, allowing 333 pass yards and a total of 417 yards.
— NC State Football (@PackFootball) September 22, 2019
Saturday’s test will not be an easy one for the Wolfpack’s secondary. FSU averages 306.3 pass yards per game, with a completion percentage of 69.7%. Although, it has not been announced to whether it will be James Blackman or Wisconsin transfer Alex Hornibrook starting for the Seminoles this weekend. The Pack’s defensive line will also get tested facing Cam Akers and the FSU running game. FSU averages 138.3 rush yards per game, resulting in an average of 3.7 yards per carry.
Whether it’s Blackman or Hornibrook behind center, the Wolfpack’s defense will need to get to the backfield and disrupt the Seminoles offensive rhythm.
One primary reason for the Wolfpack’s nine-win season in 2018 was its ability to limit their penalties. The Wolfpack didn’t beat themselves very often, committing just 60 penalties for 581 yards — the lowest in Doeren’s tenure at NC State. They ranked 19th in the country for fewest penalties per game (4.6).
However, in 2019, the Wolfpack have returned to their penalty problems. In their first four games, the Pack committed 27 penalties, resulting in an average of 6.8 penalties per game. The Ball State contest marked the second straight week that NC State had nine penalties. The Pack will need to improve in this area on Saturday, which may prove challenging in such a hostile environment.
“For us, it’s eliminate the penalties…and let’s see what happens,” Doeren said. “That to me is the biggest thing we have to do: be the team that doesn’t beat itself…”
Playing a conference opponent on the road is never an easy task for any team. The Wolfpack’s youth and inexperience will be tested again in their first road game since the loss in Morgantown. Doeren will hope to see the “very angry” version of his Wolfpack team, and, as a result, take out some frustration against FSU.