Essential preparation for the game on Saturday as we delve into the mind of NC State blogger James Curle(aka James in Willow Springs for Triangle sports radio listeners). James runs the NCSU blog Riddick & Reynolds and is one of the more fair minded Wolfpack bloggers you will find out there which means he is only partly nuts. Questions and answers after the jump.
1. For the most part the defense seems better this season. Who is most responsible for that? Nate Irving? Jon Tenuta?
James: It depends on whom you ask. If you ask Coach O'Brien, he'll say the reason is the consistency of the starting lineup this year. As I'm sure everyone is well aware of (because we broadcast it every chance we got), State had to deal with an absurd number of injuries in years one, two and three of O'Brien's tenure, and last season may have even been the worst of the three, in terms of total starts lost. The worm has turned dramatically this year and we've been absurdly healthy. Heading into the Wake game, I think we had a completely vacant injury report (other than one or two reserves that had been out for the year). I don't recall that ever happening during the Amato and O'Cain eras. By not having to constantly shift guys across the field to plug holes, Coach O'Brien would say players have to think about their assignments less and are able to play much faster as a result.
I'd say the coupling of Nate Irving with Jon Tenuta has been the key. They've re-energized a defense that lacked confidence last season. Nate's return to dominance (he set the NCAA record last week with eight tackles for loss) and Tenuta's more aggressive blitzing schemes have built that confidence level back to where it needs to be.
Also--speaking to Tenuta's influence but admittedly as someone who's never played football beyond pee wee--I think defenses in general prefer to attack and gamble rather than rely on a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. I know I would if I were a defensive back, lineman or linebacker. So Tenuta dialing up the aggression level has probably made the game of football for these guys more fun than frustrating compared to last season, and that by itself has probably made a positive impact as well.
2. What is wrong with Russell Wilson? Okay, not quite that but his INTs are up so has something changed?
James: I wish I knew. Even more frustrating is the fact that a good number of his picks have come in the redzone while throwing into poor coverage, which seems completely contrary to the high-football-IQ, protect-the-football mentality we saw his first two season. That tells me Russell is no different than any other quarterback that plays at a high level, in that these QBs believe they can make every throw in every situation. He's not as reckless as Brett Favre, let's say, but despite his quiet nature and modest demeanor he's VERY confident in his abilities. He just needs to change his mentality somewhat when we get into the redzone where you've got, at the very least, a very good shot at three points if you simply protect the football.
And let's be honest...given Russell set the NCAA record for passes without a pick and had an absurd 17-1 TD/INT ratio in 2008, we State fans and all fans of him have held him to a much higher standard. He still has a nearly 2-to-1 TD/INT ratio which puts him in some very good company among his peers.
3. What is the biggest concern in facing UNC?
James: Playing as the team with more on the line. In all three games we've won recently, Carolina was the favored team--ranked the last two years--and playing for a prime bowl spot. I think that caused the Heels to play tight and allowed the Pack to play loose. The roles are now reversed and State, though not ranked, controls its destiny to play in the ACC title game. A loss against the Heels, and a win by FSU later that day against Maryland, puts the Seminoles in the title game and we're left to wonder what might've been.
I think coach O'Brien's biggest challenge will be to calm his team down, get them to focus on executing their gameplan while blocking out who their opponent is and, most importantly, getting them to forget what's at stake. I have no idea how you get every single player to do so, and it's a bit unrealistic to think they all will, given the emotion the Heels will bring to the table at home on senior day (or redshirt-junior day, as it were. Hi Jonathan Jones :).
From an Xs and Os standpoint, I think you have to take away the deep ball from TJ Yates and Dwight Jones. In the wins against Florida State and Virginia and the near-win against LSU, Yates bombed the other team to death. J. Boyd had over 200 yards receiving against the Tigers and Jones came two yards short against Virginia of eclipsing the 200-yard mark against both UVa and FSU.
I have hope we won't surrender those kinds of plays against Jones and Yates because of the type of umbrella zone we play in the defensive backfield and the amount of pressure we'll likely bring to take away Yates' time to make those deep throws. I typically hate our zone defense because it allows a quarterback to nickel-and-dime us down the field, but this will be the one game I'm thankful we play zone rather than man.
4. Besides Russell Wilson, who is NCSU's biggest threat on offense?
James: Everybody else. :) That's a cop-out answer, but one of Russell's greatest strengths is the ability to spread the ball around so well. Off the top of my head, I believe a dozen different players have caught a pass from Wilson this year and he never really keys in on a particular receiver. As such, a defense can't really cheat in coverage to one receiver versus another, and if the Heels do try to neutralize say an Owen Spencer with added coverage, it opens the door for one of our other tall, physical receivers to take over.
If I were the defensive braintrust at UNC, I would focus on taking away State's running game. We're going to want to establish the tone with a long, methodical drive to take the crowd out of it and I think Dana will challenge our line and tailbacks to churn up yards on the ground. If Carolina can force State to turn to the passing game ahead of schedule, it will improve the Heel's chances of minimizing the damage through the air.
5. Are you surprised that NCSU is in position to win the Atlantic Division?
James: Yes. I'm a State fan. :)
I was optimistic heading into the year that Tenuta would improve our defense, but I had no idea it would improve as much as it has. We didn't know what kind of player Nate Irving would be retaking the field, along with his switch to middle linebacker after playing field LB his first two years. Certainly the Atlantic was shakier than anticipated, we caught Georgia Tech in a good year, and we had some bounces go our way like they did against FSU. But that's football.
Frankly I'm disappointed in retrospect that we're not undefeated, as crazy as that sounds. We were in command early against Virginia Tech and played really poorly against ECU and Clemson in two very winnable games. If we'd played even competently against the Pirates and Tigers we'd be 9-1, and had we executed better we'd be a perfect 10-0, which is just insane to even type.