HAYNES: View from the Booth
By Tony Haynes
Isn't it funny how we all draw conclusions about a team before a season even begins? For instance, in anticipation of the 2009 campaign, the general consensus was that offense would carry NC State early while the defense had time to fill holes in the secondary, and deal with the loss of star linebacker Nate Irving.
It was a reasonable analysis, but even the most reasoned analysis doesn't always come to fruition.
Here we are just two games in and it's the defense that's actually been the brightest spot for the Wolfpack. Of course, this bodes well if the Pack offense does indeed become as prolific as most of the preseason prognosticators figured it would be.
After holding South Carolina to just seven points (and that score came on a 14-yard drive following a first quarter turnover), NC State came back and smothered Murray State in last week's 65-7 mauling of the Racers. Murray State finished with seven points, 36 total yards and just one measly yard on the ground.
The tape shows four and five red jerseys around the football on most plays, a swarming style that wasn't always evident when the Wolfpack missed a total of 21 tackles in the opener against the Gamecocks.
"We improved from South Carolina to Murray State and the big emphasis was tackling and pursuit to the ball," said senior safety Bobby Floyd, who led the Pack with eight tackles last week. "That's something we emphasized and are trying to get better at still."
A question mark at the beginning, the NC State secondary has done a good job thus far. Head coach Tom O'Brien mentioned before the season that the younger players had talent but lacked experience. Freshman cornerbacks Rashard Smith, C.J. Wilson, Gary Grant and rookie safety Earl Wolff are proof of what he was talking about.
Of course, a strong defensive front can cure a lot of ills and with the likes of Willie Young, Alan-Michael Cash, Leroy Burgess and others dominating up front, NC State has shown the ability to stop the run and pressure opposing quarterbacks.
"I think we can be great up front and that's where it all starts," Floyd said. "If you have guys up front who can dominate an offensive line, then you have a chance on defense, regardless of what you have behind it."
Gardner-Webb out of the Southern Conference will bring a 2-0 record into Carter-Finley Stadium for a 6 p.m. kick-off on Saturday night. The Runnin' Bulldogs feature a capable quarterback in Stan Doolitle, not to mention a recent reputation of being able to hang in there against teams from the FBS.
Coach Steve Patton, now in his 13th season at Gardner-Webb, even attempts to sneak in and recruit players that often end up at ACC schools.
"The quarterback Russell Wilson, we tried to offer him early in his career hoping that someone like State wouldn't let him play both football and baseball," Patton said. "When it comes down between Gardner Webb and NC State, we don't get many of those."
The Wolfpack Nation is certainly glad it worked out that way in Wilson's case. Having thrown 293 consecutive passes without an interception, the Pack signal caller now has the second longest such streak in college football history.
Here's this week's view from the booth:
Defending the Spread: Featuring the passing and running skills of Doolitle, Gardner-Webb runs its own version of the spread, meaning there will be a lot of four wide receiver sets. Out of those sets, the Runnin' Bulldogs will run a lot of reverses, misdirection plays and quick passes into the flats. With the spread, there will often be minimum protection schemes, which will certainly put a lot of pressure on the Gardner-Webb offensive line.
The Pack features superior speed and strength up front, which could become a problem for Doolittle. Gardner-Webb will try to slow down the pass rush with a variety of reverses and option plays that will force the Wolfpack to play disciplined, assignment football.
How can the Runnin' Bulldogs compete?
"I think the best thing that can happen is that your kids get over that initial shock of being in that large of a stadium that they're not use to playing in," said Patton, who's averaged seven wins per season at Gardner-Webb. "We need to settle in to what we're doing, which is playing football. The other thing is you can't have too many kids trying to do things that they don't normally do. You can't throw out all of what you've been doing and say 'they're too good to do this or too good to do that.' You have to do what you do and if they're better than you, then so be it."
Containment on Doolittle will be a big key for the NC State defense, meaning the ends and linebackers will be responsible for keeping him in the pocket where he's less dangerous.
The NC State Running Game: Although NC State averaged four yards on 48 rushing attempts against Murray State, O'Brien said he'd still like to see improvement from the running game. That could be a challenge for a couple of reasons this week. One, the Wolfpack has been forced to make even more changes to its offensive line after word came down on Thursday that starting left tackle Julian Williams will miss Saturday's game after being diagnosed with the Flu. Remember, Williams was shifted from guard to tackle after Jake Vermiglio suffered a lower leg injury against South Carolina.
Both will be out this week, meaning redshirt freshman Andrew Wallace gets his first start at left tackle. Wallace becomes the third different starter at left tackle in as many weeks.
Another obstacle for the running game on Saturday could be the Gardner-Webb defense, which traditionally plays stout defense against the run. The Runnin' Bulldogs return a lot of experience from a defense that gave up 118 yards per game on the ground a season ago. And in a stunning performance, Gardner-Webb yielded just 79 rushing yards to Georgia Tech in a narrow 10-7 loss to the Jackets last October in Atlanta. Tailback Jonathan Dwyer, the 2008 ACC Player of the Year who rushed for 1,395 yards, could do no better than 27 yards on 16 carries in that game.
"They haven't given up 100 yards rushing in nine of the last 10 games," O'Brien said. "They have a system, they've played in it, and the system has been there for years. They're well-coached and they play hard."
Linebackers Jefferey Williams (6-0, 225, Jr.) and Mario Brown (6-2, 240, R-Sr.) are preseason All-Americans in the FCS, and both are forces to be reckoned with in the running game.
As we've seen many times over the last few years, the NC State offense needs to be balanced in order to have consistent success. If the Runnin' Bulldogs can control the Wolfpack running game, there could be a few more Pack punts than the two we saw last Saturday night.
3 p.m.: Fan Zone, front lawn of RBC Center.
3:30: Walk of Champions, front of Murphy Center.
5 p.m.: Wolfpack Sports Network pre-game show begins.
6:05: Kick off!