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    HAYNES: The Clash with Clemson




    Remember being a kid and having that feeling of anticipation and excitement before Christmas morning, just knowing that brand new bicycle was waiting next to the tree? For a brief moment, bottle that memory of exhilaration and picture yourself being in the shoes of Clemson running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller on Saturday morning. Just like we lost sleep over the new bike, Davis and Spiller will be like kids in a candy store knowing the NC State defense will be waiting on Saturday.


    Davis has a pair of 100-yard rushing games against the Wolfpack. Spiller does as well. Think about it for a moment: two running backs on the same team who have twice rushed for better than 100 yards against the Pack in their careers.


    But then again, perhaps this NC State defense won’t be quite as generous as those units Davis and Spiller have gone up against the last three years. We’ll learn more at high noon on Saturday when the Wolfpack (1-1) and Tigers (1-1) clash in the ACC opener for both schools.


    Clemson has an impressive arsenal of offensive weapons, quite possibly the best array of skill players in the ACC. Quarterback Cullen Harper was the preseason pick to win ACC Player of the Year. Speedy receiver Jacoby Ford should change his name to Jacoby Ferrari. The other wide receiver, Aaron Kelly, caught eight balls against NC State last year.


    But if the Wolfpack is going to have any chance of slowing Clemson down, it must first slow down the Tigers’ running attack.


    “Oh definitely, especially with those two running backs,” said NC State linebacker Robbie Leonard. “They’re talented all over the field, but our job is to stop the run first and make them beat us in the air.”


    Leonard and the Pack defense learned the hard way. In last year’s not as close as the score would indicate’ 42-20 loss to Clemson in Raleigh, NC State gave up 340 yards on the ground and 608 yards total.


    There’s every reason to logically believe the Tigers won’t be quite as productive this time around.


    The NC State defense: After forcing the fewest turnovers (16) in the ACC last season, the 2008 Wolfpack defense has already taken the ball away eight times through two games this year. And with six already, the Pack leads the nation in interceptions. NC State also has eight sacks, a figure that ranks No.1 in the ACC thus far.


    “Between last year and this year, the defense has a better understanding of where to line-up and what’s expected of us,” Leonard said. “I’d say we’re also a lot faster than last year. That’s what’s led to the turnovers, plus a little hustle and attitude.”


    In that debacle against Clemson last year, the Wolfpack was still learning coordinator Mike Archer’s schemes and the obvious indecision was greatly exploited by coach Tommy Bowden’s Tigers. Making use of multiple formations and shifts, Clemson dazzled with confusion and execution.


    NC State shouldn’t be as confounded on Saturday.


    “You can tell their players are playing with more confidence and know what they’re doing,” Bowden said. “I’m sure they’ve bought into coach O’Brien’s program, just like any program where the coach has been there a little bit longer. That’s the biggest difference I see in watching last year’s tape and the two games this year. We caught them at a time last year where I’m sure there were some reservations about what they were doing.”


    On paper, Clemson would seem to have a decided advantage at just about every spot on the football field, except perhaps when the Tigers try to match-up with NC State’s defensive line. Clemson opened the season with four new starters on its offensive front. Two of those players, guard Barry Humphries and tackle Chris Hairston, won’t play on Saturday because of injuries.


    Wolfpack defensive end Willie Young and tackle Alan-Michael Cash could be a handful for Clemson, while linebacker Nate Irving, the reigning ACC Defensive Back of the Week, is playing as well as anyone.


    The defense must keep NC State in this game by slowing down Spiller and Davis, and by forcing Harper to put it up in obvious passing situations. Getting Harper to throw the ball to the wrong colored jerseys, however, may be difficult. In his career, the savvy graduate student has thrown just seven picks compared to 30 touchdowns.


    Preventing big plays from Ford will also be a priority for the NC State defense. A world class track athlete, Ford tallied 60 yards on two reverses last season. He’ll line-up outside, in the slot and even in the backfield. The Tigers always have some specialty plays designed to get Ford into open space where no one can catch him.


    NC State offense vs. Clemson defense: Russell Wilson returns as NC State’s starting quarterback this week, but in many ways, the situation isn’t much different than it was when he made his first start at South Carolina two weeks ago. Although the redshirt freshman got a little experience in that game, the operative word is little.’ He had played only a quarter and a half before being knocked out with a grade-3 concussion. Up to that point, he had completed only 1-of-5 passes and had rushed for just 12 yards on four carries.


    “I’m excited about coming back,” Wilson said. “The doctors did a great job with me and I’m ready to go.”


    Perhaps it is to NC State’s advantage that Bowden and his defensive staff don’t have much to look at when watching Wilson on tape. Neither Bowden nor Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien truly know what to expect from a player who has spent very little time playing at the Division-1 level.


    It is Wilson’s ability to freelance and run that concerns Clemson the most.


    “It gives you more problems on defense because you have to count the quarterback as a tailback,” Bowden said. “It allows you to do less things defensively because he has throwing skills and running skills.”


    A quarterback who can run actually gives an offense 10 blockers when he decides to keep it, as opposed to just nine when the ball is handed or pitched to a running back (quarterbacks rarely block, of course).


    Still, Wilson’s main job will be to manage the game, take care of the football and try to keep the NC State offense on the field. It’s doubtful the Wolfpack is good enough offensively right now to put together long, sustained drives against a defense as good as Clemson’s, but if the Pack can get first downs and avoid a steady diet of three and outs, it can be effective. Winning the field position battle will be crucial in this game and NC State absolutely must take advantage of scoring opportunities when they present themselves.


    There’s no way to sugarcoat it: NC State is shorthanded right now. With tight ends Anthony Hill and Matt Kushner out with injuries, offensive coordinator Dana Bible will have to cut back on the number of formations and personnel groupings he can employ. With five catches and a touchdown last week, redshirt freshman George Bryan showed off the soft hands that will likely make him a very good tight end at this level, but he’s not yet at the point where he can be an effective, consistent blocker, especially against the caliber of people he’ll face off against on Saturday.


    The Tigers feature several future NFL draft picks on defense. Senior free safety Michael Hamlin is looking more and more like the second coming of Brian Dawkins. Hamlin upped his career interception total to 11 with three picks against The Citadel. Defensive end Ricky Sapp had two sacks last year in Raleigh and figures to draw extra attention on Saturday.


    In week one, Alabama showed the recipe for success against Clemson: line-up, be physical and run the football. But of course, that was Alabama, a team that obviously is a great deal more advanced on the offensive line than is NC State right now.


    But somehow, the Pack must find a way to get a little push and run the football so Wilson won’t constantly be facing third and long situations against a fierce, speedy defensive unit.


    As usual, the “Death Valley” crowd will be revved up and deafening at the beginning. It will be up to the Wolfpack to play with poise and have some success early to calm things down.


    “The noise always plays a factor,” said NC State guard Meares Green. “I’ve played in Death Valley before and so have a few other linemen. It kind of affects you when you can’t hear the quarterback, but it also raises your adrenaline with such a huge crowd.”



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