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Clemson at N.C. State
October 18th, 2003
Clemson will sit on a precarious perch as they travel to Raleigh in late October. A season that started out 4-0 including a big win over arch rival Georgia, will have hit a snag with back to back losses at Maryland and at home to Virginia. The Tigers will have a chance to reverse those fortunes against a Top 15 Wolfpack team that at most will have one loss when the Tigers visit. And if State can somehow knock off Ohio State in Columbus on September 13, the Wolfpack will most likely be ranked in the Top 10. Don't count on that, but State will still be in the hunt for an ACC Championship when the Tigers roll in.
N.C. State is coming off an 11-3 season in 2002 that culminated with season ending wins over Florida State (17-7) and Notre Dame (28-6) in the Gator Bowl. The Wolfpack started the season 9-0 before dropping three games in a row versus Georgia Tech (24-17), at Maryland (24-21), and at Virginia (14-9).
The Wolfpack defeated Clemson in 2002 on a Thursday night by an embarrassing 38-6 margin. Other than the bowl loss, it was the most humbling loss for the Tigers in 2002 as they could do little right on offense or defense. The loss was made worse by the fact that 75,000 fans showed up on a Thursday night in Death Valley to watch carnage while millions viewed the game on national television.
The coaching staff at N.C. State has changed quite a bit in the offseason. Offensive Coordinator Marty Galbraith left to take a job with the Arizona Cardinals making way for former Oregon State assistant Noel Mazzone to take over the reigns. Don't expect much tinkering, mainly because of Chuck Amato and partly because of all the success the Wolfpack have had in the past few years under Amato. Quarterback coach Mike Canales also jumped to the NFL, taking a job with the New York Jets.
This will be the 8th overall game and the 4th ACC contest for N.C. State in the 2003 season. The Wolfpack open the season hosting Western Carolina. N.C. State then hits the road for back to back games versus nemesis Wake Forest and the much ballyhooed game in Columbus with the Buckeyes. The Wolfpack then return back home to host Texas Tech (remember them?) and North Carolina. On October 4th, the Wolfpack head to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech before returning home to host Connecticut the week before the Clemson game.
Key Returning Players For The Wolfpack
On offense, the key returner for the Wolfpack is also one of the premier quarterbacks in the nation in 6-5 Senior Philip Rivers. The quarterback that everybody likes to laugh at because of the way he throws continues to put up staggering numbers for the Wolfpack. Rivers threw for over 3,500 yards in 2002 with 20 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Super sophomore T.A. McLendon will also return after rushing for 1,101 yards in his true freshman year in Raleigh. Completing the skill position returnees is All ACC senior wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, who led the Wolfpack last year with 1,192 receiving yards and a gaudy 17.8 yards per catch average. The Wolfpack return three of their five offensive line starters from 2002 in guard Sean Locklear, tackle Chris Colmer, and center Jed Paulsen.
|Super sophomore T.A. McLendon returns as one of the most lethal offensive weapons in the ACC McLendon rushed for 1,100 yards and scored 18 touchdowns as a true freshman in Raleigh.|
The kicking game returns two way kicker Austin Herbert, who was unimpressive at best last year as a kicker. Herbert was only 5 for 9 on field goal attempts and he missed 5 extra points during the season as well. Herbert also handles the punting duties for the Wolfpack.
N.C. State Strengths
Rivers is the perfect college quarterback. Smart, level headed, and extremely good at reading defenses and reacting quickly. Rivers has shown time and again that he has the skills needed to get the ball in the hands of the speedy Wolfpack skill players. His worth to the Wolfpack goes beyond words as they aim for an ACC Championship.
In McLendon, the Wolfpack have an envious running situation. McLendon is a bruising physical specimen at 5-11 and 215 pounds. But McLendon is sneaky fast and able to take 7 yard runs and stretch them to 25 or 30 yards in a blink of the eye. The Wolfpack can pound McLendon over and over, then simply play pitch and catch with Cotchery. The combination is enough to keep defenses completely off balance. The Wolfpack are also extremely talented in the secondary, which allows Amato to play tight press man (a trademark of Amato from his days in Tallahassee). Without super corners, this defensive philosophy is risky, potentially giving up big plays with every ball that is snapped. But because Amato trusts Hudson and Reid, the plan is made much easier and without giving up many big plays.
N.C. State Weaknesses
The Wolfpack must find a suitable replacement for All ACC tight end Sean Berton. Berton was an outstanding blocker who provided Rivers an outlet for passes when his primary receivers were covered.
The Wolfpack also have some questions on the offensive line, where they are young if not talented. Bryant and Dumas are seniors and should provide steady leadership, but the other 3 projected starters for State are two juniors and a freshman.
The kicking situation in Raleigh last year was dismal, and it cost the Wolfpack a chance to win the three games that they ended up losing. Herbert must improve if he wants to earn the confidence of the impatient Amato. A repeat of his performance of last year will undoubtedly cost the Wolfpack several games, possibly against Clemson.
The biggest concern in Raleigh, however, is the front seven on defense. The defensive line is especially vulnerable. To start with, there are no returning starters on the defensive line and few with many snaps under them. In fact, true freshman Mario Williams has already been penciled in as the starter at end. Although Williams enrolled in December and participated in Spring practice, it will be interesting to see if this prep superstar can hold up to offensive lines that average 300 pounds across the league. The other end, Renoldo Moses, is a sophomore. John McCargo is listed as the starting nose tackle, and he is another freshman (red shirt) that State will look to in a starting role. This makes the Wolfpack very young and very inexperienced on the defensive line.
The linebacker situation is not much better. Beyond Pat Thomas, there are no returning starters. In addition, the Wolfpack will be counting on a sophomore (Manny Lawson) and a junior (Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay) to plug the middle of the field.
Other than last year, Tommy Bowden-coached Clemson teams have played some of their best football against N.C. State. That is what made last year's debacle that much more perplexing. The Wolfpack are good…maybe very good. The defensive question marks along the front seven will most likely mean the Wolfpack will not win the ACC this year. But, that won't be decided one way or another by the time they host Clemson, because the Wolfpack should be undefeated in conference play on October 18. The Tigers have revenge on their side, if that amounts to anything. The nature of that loss in Clemson last year has stuck with the fans, so you would assume it stuck with the coaches and players as well. Or, at least, you would hope so.
Philip Rivers remains the key to the Wolfpack. Assuming Rivers is in the lineup when Clemson plays the Wolfpack, it will be a tough task to win in Raleigh. However, State becomes a very average team if Rivers is not in the lineup…something to consider considering the losses up front on the offensive line. Rivers is a tough kid that can take a shot, but the Buckeyes will most certainly bring some heat and you just never know how any quarterback will hold up to that.
N.C. State will be favored in the 7-10 point range against the Tigers.
The Wolfpack wins in a shootout, 31-27. N.C. State is simply too good offensively to contain, and playing at home will be too much for the Tigers to overcome. The Wolfpack are not great defensively, and Clemson will be able to exploit the middle of the field. But it won't be enough. For all the preseason hoopla surrounding N.C. State, I think they may be a bit overrated. Even overrated, they are better than Clemson.
Clemson falls to 4-3 and in the midst of a 3 game losing streak. The Tigers will also remain unranked. Clemson has now passed the toughest part of the 2003 schedule, and the question now becomes simple. Will this team throw in the towel and head to another 6 or 7 win season? Or, will this team move forward and turn this season around at it's lowest point? The answers will begin to be answered as the Tar Heels come to town.
Scott Rhymer can be reached at email@example.com. Scott and CUTigers.com publisher Roy Philpott are the co-hosts of the CUTigers.com Pregame Show on WCCP 104.9 FM, which airs 2 hours prior to the Tiger Tailgate Show on Clemson Gamedays.