I’m going to give you 4 ‘things’ to watch during the game – player match-ups, strengths/weaknesses, etc. – so you’ll have a sense of what to watch for as the game plays out. You probably know me as a stat guy, so I assure you I’m still going to be analyzing the numbers for you and the patterns I find in the stat analysis will give us our 4 keys to the game, so to speak. I’ll then give you 2 predictions based on those things we’ll be watching for throughout the game that I’m confident will play a large role in the eventual outcome of the game. Ergo, you have “what 2 watch 4”.
Win under our belts, wind in our sails, we now head back into conference play with momentum and eyes on a critical road victory to carry that momentum forward. NC State have played 4 games from which you can take very little, given the quality of opponents, so it’s hard to tell what to expect out of the Wolfpack. Going off of what we do know from last season, NC State was an above average offense and a below average defense in the ACC, leading to a 3-5 conference record and 5th place in the Atlantic division.
Contain Brissett – Get hats in the backfield, with arms up to disrupt his passing lanes, but don’t pin your ears back to chase him down.
NC State’s senior QB Jacoby Brissett is a guy who clearly is physically gifted, and is not only a dual threat quarterback, but one who will use his legs to keep plays alive and still look to pass. He’s exceptional at improvising and still looking for receivers long after a pocket breaks down. If he does need to run, he’s agile and has a sizeable frame that’s tough to bring down. All in all, what this means is that you want to surround him with your pass rush and keep him in front of you. When he’s chased down with reckless abandon, he’s very good at sidestepping and making a play. When he’s pressured by guys who aren’t flying out of control at him, he struggles to decide how to evade them. If we don’t give him that sidestepping opportunity, he will either throw off of his back foot leading to a high percentage of poor throws and incomplete passes, or he will hesitate and/or run himself into trouble where we can then bring him down. One of my biggest concerns with this defense, particularly in this game, is their fly-to-the-ball approach sometimes causing errors in pursuit angles. Brissett (as well as their other skilled position players) can really hurt a team that doesn’t get pursuit right. Still, if you don’t pressure him at all, he’s perfectly capable of picking you apart, if he gets into a good rhythm. Disrupt the pocket, but don’t fly at him so as to open up a running or throwing lane, and we’ll have a good chance of slowing down their passing game and maybe creating some turnovers.
Hold your coverage, defensive backs.
I’ve searched for this statistic all over the place, but can’t find it – Jacoby Brissett has to be among the top QBs in college football in completions on plays that last longer than X seconds. That is down to both his ability to extend plays, but also the fact that often he doesn’t try to throw on the run, but rather he controls his feet and steps into throws, resulting in a dangerous outside-the-pocket passer. If the line fails to contain him, the secondary will need to be on their toes and not lose their man. I went back and watched the Florida State game from last year – Brissett’s best statistical performance of his college career – and noticed a trend in his performance. He made plays several different ways, but most of the passing plays, he had eyes up the field, went through all of his reads and stepped into throws, whether he was able to stay in the pocket or not. Crucially, in moments where FSU could have gotten off the field, Brissett completed half a dozen or so passes where the play had gone so long that the defender nearest the intended receiver had completely lost track of his man. Our guys in coverage have to maintain focus on their receivers, probably longer than their used to doing, and allow the front to take care of Brissett’s running ability.
Expose their nationally ranked #3 run defense.
Okay, so stating the obvious – we have to move the football to score points and we have to score points to win the game; Football 101. But seriously, we really do need to move the ball on the ground against them. NC State currently ranks 3rd in the nation in run defense, allowing less than 50 yards per game and about 2 per carry. Reminder: They’ve played Troy, Eastern Kentucky, Old Dominion and South Alabama. Troy averaged 4.84 yards on their 25 carries that resulted in 121 yards and 2 touchdowns (that’s with their QBs accounting for -12 yards). Through their 3 games this season, Troy ranks 118th in rushing offense. We can and will run the ball all over them. This is where all that work on the read option last week will prove to be good practice. Spread the ball around to several ball carriers and get into open space.
Expose their nationally ranked #16 run offense.
They’ve already run for 1,036 yards – 259 per game, 5.21 per carry – and 20 touchdowns… against Troy, the #119 run defense, Old Dominion, the #115 run defense, South Alabama, the #113 run defense, and an FCS team. Run defense hasn’t been a strength this season, but this is the time we prove ourselves. This may actually be less domination than what I see happening on the corresponding match-up when Louisville has the ball, but I still expect us to make a statement here.
Prediction 1: Brandon Radcliff will score his first FBS touchdown since the opener against Auburn.
Outside runs can destroy this offense, proven by Troy’s Brandon Burks’ 124 yard-14 carry day (8.9 avg, and a 57 yard TD). Burks, at 5’10” and 207 lbs runs a lot like our own, similarly-built Brandon Radcliff. With Lamar Jackson a threat to run, not to mention other guys like Bonnafon, Samuel and Scott possibly getting carries, I’m predicting plenty of holes will open up for Radcliff to have a very nice day: 10-15 carries, 80-100 yards, TD.
Prediction 2: Jacoby Brissett, who currently leads the country in completion percentage at 77.9%, will complete less than 60% of his passes and have less than 250 yards, and he will throw his first INT of the season.
He’s had a solid start to the season, but he hasn’t really had to do anything yet. His defense hasn’t been tested. His running backs have yet to play against a decent defense. He’s not going to be playing with a huge lead like he has been this season, and he’s going to have to throw more than ~25 passes against Louisville. I think he’ll have more yards than his season average, purely because he’ll have to throw the ball a lot, so his average per completion will be significantly lower, as well as the completion percentage.
Bonus Prediction: Louisville will run for more yards and more rushing TDs.
I am extremely confident about this game – which, if you know me, should be a word of caution, but I’m comfortable saying that I think this team is ready to take the next step toward going on a winning streak and taking back their season. The one worry I have is whether the pressure of doing so, on this young team, and the need to focus on the task at-hand and not get too far ahead of themselves or overlook this opponent, will present a stumbling block. If that can be overcome, I think we’ll have a fun game.
Score Prediction: Louisville 35 – NC State 24
Andy Knabel joined on as a contributing writer for The Cardinal Connect in August of 2013. You can follow Andy on Twitter @knabelism.