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#23 N.C. State at #14 UNC: Game Preview

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The highest-stakes contest this rivalry has seen in a while

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, have y’all sufficiently recovered from Saturday night’s trainwreck to start looking at what’s up next? (Honestly, I’m not sure I have, but here we are anyways)

After expectations that lay near the gutter of the ACC, N.C. State has been one of the conference’s two biggest surprises this season thanks to unprecedentedly improved play from erstwhile starting quarterback Devin Leary helping to supplement what the Wolfpack already had, which was a strong defensive front and a pretty potent running game. They started out the season late thanks to COVID-19 and were pretty inconsistent from the get-go, starting their season with a close win against Wake Forest and then getting absolutely washed by Virginia Tech, but have since won 3 straight, including drubbing a UVA team that was supposed to be pretty good. They’ve impressed national media enough to work their way into the back of the rankings, and Mack Brown still thinks they’re under-ranked. So after losing to a team that UNC was two-score favorites over, a game that looked pretty easy preseason given the results of last year’s game and State’s expectations for this one suddenly looks like a tough game to bounce back with. Let’s take a deeper look at what the Heels are going to be up against:

NC State Offense

As alluded to above, the biggest reason for State’s success this season has been the play of sophomore quarterback Devin Leary. Last year, he showed a big arm but basically nothing else, completing just 48% of his passes for a paltry 5.8 yards per attempt and just 8 touchdowns to 5 picks through the 8 games he played. This year, he hasn’t been fantastic, but he has been solid: his completion percentage increased to almost 60%, his yards per attempt are up to over 8, and he’s thrown for 8 touchdowns in about half the attempts it took him to get there last year — to only 2 picks rather than 5. Nobody’s confusing him for one of the conference’s best quarterbacks, but he’s serviceable for a team with a good supporting cast. Unfortunately, Leary fractured his fibula in the Pack’s game against Duke on Saturday, and the resulting surgery will force him to miss at least most of the rest of this season. His backup is junior Bailey Hockman, who was equally bad last year (56% completion, 5.6 YPA, 1 TD to 4 INT) and, though he began the year as the Pack’s starter (though Leary would likely have started if not for COVID-19), he quickly showed he hasn’t improved like Leary did: through about 4 halves of action, he’s hit on 58.7% of his passes for 6.7 YPA, 2 scores, and 3 picks — and everything good about that line came against Wake Forest in their first game of the season. Hockman’s a decent athlete, which has the potential to give the Heels trouble, but it’s hard to see him being serviceable with what he’s shown so far.

The rest of the Pack offense, though, remains dangerous. Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr are both excellent running backs, fairly comparable to UNC’s own duo: Knight is a powerful back with great hands who’s averaging better than 6 yards a carry this season, and Person Jr is a constant big-play threat who’s averaging nearly 5 yards a tote. State leans heavily on its ground game, and it’s worked for them so far because of their running back combo and an offensive line that isn’t phenomenal, but does enough to get them going. The line’s a little weaker in pass protection, having allowed 12 sacks through 5 games, though that’s a big improvement from last year. And in the receiving corps, they’ve got a handful of threats as well: Emeka Emezie in the slot is getting open regularly after a down year last year, and leads his team in catches (19) and receiving yards (286). Devin Carter, after breaking out last year, remains the team’s main big-play threat with 13 catches for 243 yards, or almost 19 yards per catch. And big tight end Cary Angeline has developed into quite the red zone threat, with 5 touchdowns on the season already, 3 of them inside the opponent’s 20. This team, insofar as it is built in the passing game, is built to stress the defensive middle of the field with the occasional deep shot to Carter to keep you honest, and UNC’s slot defenders, safeties, and linebackers will have to be on top of their games — Hockman will hit open targets if you let him, but good coverage can easily force him into punishable mistakes.

NC State Defense

After NC State’s first two games, their new-look defense under Tony Gibson looked disastrous. They didn’t look strong enough to run the 3-3-5 that Huxtable likes, which I think is a response to more pass-happy football? Virginia Tech simply overwhelmed them at the point of attack, seemingly providing a blueprint to the rest of the ACC that State just wasn’t going to be able to stop the run against a team with a good offensive line and running backs to take advantage. Since then, though, that’s changed. The defensive front, led by star tackle Alim McNeil, has clogged up the line of scrimmage really well, allowing less than 3.1 yards per carry in each of their past three games. Their other big defensive star, middle linebacker Payton Wilson, has then led the charge in cleaning things up — after missing the Virginia Tech game with an injury, he’s led the team in tackles every week. He’s a strong tackler, too: he’s 6th in the country in solo tackles, showing that he’s not really giving up yardage when he gets to a ball-carrier a la early 2019 Chazz Surratt. His linebacking neighbor Drake Thomas has played that role, flying around the field and getting to the ball early, but not really finishing plays. Without Wilson, this was a problem, but with him, Thomas has looked excellent as well. This newfound ability to stop the run has given them friendlier game scripts, forcing teams to pass more into a personnel-loaded secondary, and it’s paid dividends: The Wolfpack have forced 7 turnovers, including 6 interceptions, in their past two games, after forcing just 1 in their first three combined. Wilson’s got 2 of those, as well. The standout player on the back end of the Wolfpack defense is redshirt freshman Shyheim Battle, who’s got a pick and three pass breakups already. The rest of the unit has gotten their hands on some balls as well, but is also vulnerable to getting torched: the NCSU defense allows a pretty average 10.7% explosive play rate (runs over 12 yards, passes over 16), while UNC is 2nd in the country on offense at such plays. Especially if UNC can repeat Virginia Tech’s POA dominance, this defense can be set up for Phil Longo to do what he does best.

Other Stuff

State’s been... fine on special teams. Their returners are fine (Thayer Thomas on punt duty is actually pretty dangerous), their specialists are pretty good, and they have strong enough lines to threaten blocked kicks, though that isn’t a story with them like it was with Florida State. They can win field position and get free points, but aren’t likely to make big plays in the third phase of the game — a good approach in general, but given UNC’s ineptitude at ST’s so far, probably a good thing for the Heels... As good as the Pack have been at forcing turnovers, they’re giving nearly as many away, with 5 picks and two lost fumbles so far. I’ve already mentioned how leaky Hockman is with the ball, but the two running backs can also be loose with the ball. Person is the biggest target, having already fumbled twice this year. UNC hasn’t been the most ball-hawkish of defenses so far, and this game is an opportunity to fix that after Trey Morrison’s incredible pick against FSU (how did we not get a single replay???)

Recap and Prediction

Mack Brown says State is underranked, but even with Leary at quarterback I’m not sure that’s true. They’ve built a winning streak against three of the ACC’s lower-tier opponents; Pitt and UVA were maybe supposed to be good but have settled into being worse than mediocre and Duke is a half away from benching its starting quarterback. Their record has looked a lot more impressive than they have, from my perspective, even at their best — which, don’t get me wrong, was indeed pretty good, just maybe not top-25 level. With Hockman in at quarterback, they look a lot less scary on offense, and I’m not sure this defense can play from behind, especially if UNC can avoid turnovers (not a given). The Heels are, like last year, a significantly more talented team, but they’ve got to overcome the mental block that a loss like last week’s can give you and then get into the right mindset for a rivalry game: remember last year’s unprepared first half? Like against Florida State, UNC are two-touchdown favorites against the Pack, and that feels about right on paper. But I’ve learned to expect enough surprises that on-paper with this team doesn’t really reflect much at this point. I think it’ll be frustratingly slightly closer than the line predicts, with UNC doing just enough to stay ahead despite opportunities to do more, until a late score puts the game out of reach for the Heels.

Score prediction: UNC 38, NCSU 27