First, some numbers and factoids:
- This is the first game in four years against Georgia Tech.
- This is the first time Tom O’Brien will lead NC State against the Yellow Jackets.
- O’Brien is 1-1 all-time against GT.
- O’Brien is 2-0 against GT Head Coach Paul Johnson, while he was at BC and Johnson led Navy.
- State is a woeful 3-10 in Atlanta against the Yellow Jackets.
- Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 17-9.
- Georgia Tech is the -9 favorite tomorrow.
Here’s my take on what’s important:
NC State’s D Must Contain Tech’s Triple Option
A depleted but still game UNC defense surrendered some 372 yards on the ground against Georgia Tech on 63 attempts, leading to a 5.9 yard per-play average. NC State cannot afford to do that, as it will allow Georgia Tech to control the ball and the clock and limit the Wolfpack’s chances with its potent offensive unit.
It’s been said around the program that the Pack brain trust worked all summer on a game plan to slow down — stopping is all but impossible — GT’s running game, which will force Yellow Jacket QB Josh Nesbit into more passing situations than their team would like. Nesbit threw only four passes against UNC, completing three for 76 total yards or 19 yards per attempt.
That may seem on the surface to be a dangerous passing game to square off against, especially with NC State’s still somewhat suspect secondary, but in reality it is isn’t: GT loves to use play-action off of faked runs, and given the potency of their running attack, they all too often catch the defensive secondary napping. If somehow State can force Georgia Tech in downs where it has to pass, there will be no surprises and it will enable the pass stopping unit to be better prepared.
One thing that will help in that regard is to disrupt their backfield on passing attempts, all the while being keenly aware that Nesbit can run at any time for first down yardage.
This all sounds like a tough row to hoe, and quite frankly it is, but it can be done if the NC State defense can keep its discipline, not overplay their lanes and prevent GT from moving around and then by the first two levels of defense. If Wolfpack players assigned to contain the edges give Nesbit and his backs too much room to move around them, it will be a long day. If they don’t, and if the interior rush and blitzers that Jon Tenuta will surely send after Nesbit can locate him, Nesbit will have few options and will make mistakes — as is his forte. That in turn could yield some big Wolfpack plays thanks to turnovers.
NC State’s Offense Must Strike and Strike Often
The Perfect Storm is the name that the NCSU offense has given itself this season, and it is a good one considering that each of the skilled position has quality players AND quality backups in the lineup. From All-ACC caliber Russell Wilson to the quickly emerging Mustafa Greene, the Pack can hurt a D on every play.
Defensive coordinators know this and they have to pick their poison as to what threat they want to try to stop. Fortunately, Wilson is smart enough to walk up to the line of scrimmage and recognize what the defensive set is more times than not, and he can then either run the play that’s called or audible into a better one that will lead to positive yardage. Even on broken plays, the elusively quick Wilson can turn nothing into something good with his feet, keeping the chains moving thereby.
State will need that on most series tomorrow, because it is more than likely that GT will consume clock and possession even if they do not score. That means that the Pack will not have the luxury of several empty possessions, and that makes it more critical to do some damage every chance they get.
If they do — and there’s little reason to believe they can’t, given their recent results as well as Georgia Tech’s — then State has every chance to win this game.
Even better, if they can build an early lead, they will limit Georgia Tech’s offensive selections in the second half, making State’s defense all the more effective. Georgia Tech is not a team built to come back quickly when they are behind, instead, they are one built to control the ball, wear out the opposition’s stopping unit while limiting the other team’s chances. A big lead early puts them in a bad spot, and that’s exactly how NC State can dominate this contest.
Kicking Game Must Improve
If there’s an Achilles Heel of the Wolfpack’s hindquarters this season, it is their kicking unit.
Place-kicker Josh Czajowski will never be mistaken for a player having a boom-boom leg, and all too often his kickoffs travel 60 yards or less in the air. Even when he does boot one far down the field, it is a low and returnable ball that puts the Wolfpack special teams in a bad position as they try to shut down a return. Now would be a good time for Czajowski to become more effective, if not in kicking distance then by increasing his hang-time, thus giving the rest of the Wolfpack players time to locate and tackle the Georgia Tech return man before they can set up a good blocking line.
Next, punter Jeff Ruiz needs to have a good game, and he especially needs to connect with the ball on each and every kick. Ruiz can kick the daylights out of the football, but he has been dogged by inconsistency and mistakes throughout his career in a Wolfpack uniform. Against Cincinnati, Ruiz had a 30 yard kicking average, which is woeful, with a 47 yard long kick. The average was shortened greatly by an ~11 yard shanked punt that left the defense facing the Cincy O well inside Wolfpack territory. State was able to stop the Bearcats on that particular possession, but they probably will not be as fortunate against a far more potent Georgia Tech offensive unit.
In short, Ruiz and Czajowski need to be long on every kick. If they have bad games, the Pack will be put in some very tough spots.
The bright spot in the kicking game / special teams department is that returner T.J. Graham seems to be back at least 95% to normal this season, and even if he is only just below top form, Graham can be a game changer on every play that he catches the ball. The former high school world record holder in track can blow down the field like a red tornado when he has space, but so far this season, Graham has yet to break off a big one thanks to his being fairly well bottled up by each of State’s quality opponents. That doesn’t diminish his ability or his threat, however, and if the Yellow Jackets dare give him a lane wide enough for him to come up to speed, then they will enjoy watching the back of his jersey while he runs into their end zone.
Finally: State Must Limit Mistakes
The Pack seems to have re-developed a habit of getting untimely penalties this season, and even worse, they are penalties of the unforced mental error variety. The Pack was repeatedly called for improperly lining up before they snapped the ball last Thursday, and it was fortunate that they were able to not let it hurt their chances to win too badly. Once or even possibly twice is understandable, but more than that is something that the team must improve and do so before kickoff tomorrow. To win, State cannot afford a lot of mental lapses, and lining up on their own LOS improperly is exactly that. That puts the team off schedule down-and-distance wise, and given their need to score as many points as possible, it is an unacceptable impediment.
My Pick: NCSU 30 – GT 24.