The Final Breakdown

The last time Clemson traveled to Raleigh to play at Carter-Finley Stadium, it wasn't a good result.

WHAT: No. 3 Clemson at N.C. State
WHERE: Carter-Finley Stadium (57,583) - Raleigh, N.C.
WHEN: Thursday, Sept. 19 (7:31 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson by 14
TV: ESPN

CLEMSON GROUND GAME VS. N.C. STATE FRONT SEVEN
Outside of the war daddies down in Tallahassee, there may not better set of defensive tackles that Clemson will face in ACC play this season. As a matter of fact, T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal could be the best two players on the 2013 N.C. State team.


Roderick McDowell is healthy again after suffering a concussion against S.C. State. (Getty Images)
McGill checks in at 6-1, 293 and Teal, a Marlboro County graduate, is listed at 6-foot-1, 303 pounds. They've combined to make 12 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss this season.

After two games, the N.C. State defense is eighth in the country against the run, giving up an average of 79.5 yards per game. But keep the first two opponents in mind as we move forward -- Louisiana Tech and Richmond.

Middle linebacker Robert Caldwell is first among N.C. State defenders with 18 tackles. Rounding out the top six tacklers on the Wolfpack defense are all four starting defensive backs. Strong-side linebacker D.J. Green is tied for fifth with nine.

While it's usually not a good sign to see every starting defensive back inside a team's top six tacklers, it's probably a little too early in the season to start drawing conclusions from tackle totals.

Clemson's interior offensive linemen are strong and experienced. David Beasley and Tyler Shatley are in their second season as starters and first-year starter Ryan Norton has earned high praise from the coaches through spring and fall camp. They, of course, will be challenged by the starting N.C. State and the other three or four guys that will rotate in and out through the night.

That interior matchup could play a big part in deciding what kind of a night could be in store for the Tigers.

As is the case with any game, particularly one on the road, at night, in a hostile environment, the Clemson offense needs to stay on schedule. That means Roderick McDowell and Zac Brooks will be counted on to pick up solid yardage when carrying on early downs. Same goes for Tajh Boyd when he's avoiding pressure or carrying the ball on designed runs.

And all of that is helped made possible by good blocking.

Running between the tackles will prevent its challenges, and it's one that Chad Morris is well aware of, but Clemson will find away to run the football with some success on Thursday night.

While McDowell may not necessarily add a big number to his season total of 175 yards, as long as he's efficient, the Tigers should be fine. The same should be said for Brooks.

It's a close call, maybe a little too close for comfort for those in orange, but Clemson's higher level of talent should win out here.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON AIR ATTACK VS. N.C. STATE SECONDARY/PASS RUSH
Boyd wasn't his usual spectacular-self when Clemson played S.C. State a week and a half ago. Being a bit too eager to throw touchdown passes and not take what the defense was giving him certainly played a big part in that. If he enters Thursday night's game with a similar mindset, it could be a long night for the Clemson offense.


Tajh Boyd was called out by Chad Morris after Clemson's last win. Will he be sharper tonight? (Dean Legge)
N.C. State's defense employs a bend-but-don't-break philosophy. They'll try to take away the vertical passing game, but will allow the opposition to work the short to intermediate stuff

Because of that, don't be surprised if Boyd throws a lot of early screens and quick hitting passes because in an effort to open things up over the top. So, if you have Sammy Watkins or Adam Humphries in a college fantasy football PPR league, it could be a productive evening for those guys.

But, if things don't go too well early, Boyd will have to remain patient. Assuming that Morris has drilled that into his over the last week or so since the S.C. State game [and we are], Boyd will bounce back with a strong performance.

N.C. State is 62nd in the country with a pass efficiency defense rating of 126.04. Louisiana Tech and Richmond combined for 478 yards passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The two teams also completed 44 of 72 passes.

Of the six cornerbacks listed on the N.C. State depth chart, there are four freshmen. Senior free safety Jarvis Byrd is a former cornerback. Starting cornerbacks Juston Burris and Dontae Johnson are both experienced, too.

The Wolfpack's interior duo of Teal and McGill are capable of pushing the pocket and cause some havoc during pass rush situations. But if Boyd is getting the ball out quickly to his receivers, that could be negated pretty easily. But it's worth keeping an eye out for the N.C. State pass rush. They're tied for 36th in the country with 2.5 sacks per game.

Darryl Cato-Bishop and Art Norman are threats off the edge, so Brandon Thomas and Gifford Timothy will be tested.

As is the case with every game, particularly those on the road, Boyd will have to take care of the football -- he threw a pair of interceptions during his last visit to Carter-Finley Stadium.

We'll go out on a ledge here and say that Boyd will throw more touchdown passes than interceptions this time.

ADVANTAGE:

N.C. STATE AIR ATTACK VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY/PASS RUSH
Although the 2013 quarterback situation is pretty much in stop-gap-mode until Florida transfer Jacoby Brissett becomes eligible, it still hurts when the guy who won the job in the offseason goes down with an injury.


Pete Thomas transferred to N.C. State from Colorado State. Thomas took over for starter Brandon Mitchell after he was injured in a season-opening win over Louisiana Tech. (Getty Images)
The winner was Brandon Mitchell, an Arkansas transfer, but a foot injury in the opener has forced Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas into the starting role.

Through two games at N.C. State, Thomas has completed 39 of 58 passes for 449 yards with three interceptions and no touchdown passes. Before transferring in, Thomas passed for 4,269 yards with 18 touchdowns at Colorado State. A two-year starter there, he completed 63.5 percent of his throws before leaving.

Freshman wide receiver Marquez Valdes has been one of the most impressive offensive performers for the Wolfpack this season. He's got 12 catches for 174 yards while Rashard Smith 12 catches and 145 yards.

Valdes is an explosive, downfield threat while Smith is going to do a lot of movement before the snap and is a threat in the screen game.

Clemson can't forget about tight end Asa Watson. Though he has just one catch this season, N.C. State offensive coordinator could try to get him more involved this week. He's another Wolfpack player to keep an eye on throughout the night.

The Tigers' pass rush has been very effective through the first two games of the season. Leading the team in sacks once again is Vic Beasley [two]. His backup, Shaq Lawson, also has two. So does backup linebacker Kellen Jones. Corey Crawford, the other starting defensive end, has 1.5.

If Robert Crisp, N.C. State's staring left tackle, is out, it could make things interesting for Thomas, who Brent Venables called a capable scrambler. The Wolfpack have been pretty good pass blockers so far. They've allowed only two sacks.

Canada will test the Clemson cornerback foursome of Darius Robinson, Bashaud Breeland, Martin Jenkins and Garry Peters with all sorts of stuff. That group, along with safeties Robert Smith and Travis Blanks, will need to be on the lookout for just about everything, from double moves to quick hits out on the perimeter.

The pre-snap motions and movements will test the Tigers' defense, too.

If they can stay disciplined and tackle well, the Clemson secondary will have a chance to improve on the 84th ranked pass defense efficiency rating.

They showed signs of improvement against S.C. State with the two pick-6 returns. But there were also a few big plays given up, which causes us to approach with caution.

Clemson's pass rush could push this matchup one way or another. It's too close to call.

ADVANTAGE:

N.C. STATE GROUND GAME VS. CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN
N.C. State makes no bones about it. Yes, they're spread. Yes, they'll hurry things up. But they want to run the football, too. In fact, of their 163 plays from scrimmage, 97 have been runs.


Corey Crawford and the Clemson front-seven have made strides this season. Can they take the next step against the Wolfpack? (Getty Images)
Don't be surprised if they do try to slow things down and try to keep Boyd off the field by running the ball.

Tony Creecy, the starter, has 103 yards on 25 carries. Matt Dayes leads the team with 31 carries for 127 yards and three touchdowns. And though Shadrach Thornton hasn't recorded a carry from scrimmage this season, he did rush for 114 yards and a touchdown against Clemson last season.

Aside from a couple of chunk runs by the guy who could win the Heisman Trophy this fall, Clemson has been strong against the run. So far, the Tigers' front seven has been as advertised.

The perimeter run defense will be tested because N.C. State likes to use jet sweeps and plays like that which get ball carriers out on the edge.

Linebackers Spencer Shuey and Stephone Anthony are first and second on the team in tackling. That's always a good sign. Here's another good one. With the team average of 8.5 tackles for loss per game, Clemson is among the top 15 in the country. But, keep in mind: a little less than half of those tackles for loss are sacks.

Yet another encouraging sign: N.C. State has given up 15 tackles for loss. Since two of those tackles for loss are sacks, that number is especially high.

In the name of keeping the ball as long as possible, second-team quarterback Bryant Shirreffs might be counted on a lot. Compared two Thomas, he's the better suited for this offense, because it runs much more efficiently with a dual-threat quarterback. Shirreffs is third among N.C. State rushers with 70 yards. At times, he could be utilized on zone-read plays and other designed quarterback runs.

We're believers in the Clemson run defense, even more so because it will be pretty obvious that the quarterback isn't a threat to run when Thomas is in the game. Give Clemson the nod here.

ADVANTAGE:


Chandler Catanzaro could become Clemson's all-time leading scorer if the Tigers have a big night. (Roy Philpott)
SPECIAL TEAMS
Kick and punt returns will be rendered useless on Thursday night. The two teams have two of the best kickoff specialists in the country in Niklas Sade and Bradley Pinion. Nationally, they're ranked one and two in touchback percentage.

Punt returns are rare against Pinion. N.C. State's Wil Bauman has punted seven times. Four of them have been returned for an average of just over five yards.

Sade also handles field goals, and he's solid there, too. Just like Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro.

There is no clear-cut advantage here.

ADVANTAGE:

PREDICTION: Clemson 35 N.C. State 17

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