When NC State Has The Ball
After struggling to put points on the board for much of the early season, the Wolfpack have started to score with more frequency in the last few weeks (24.0 ppg in the last three weeks), unfortunately for the Wolfpack they have also lost four straight games despite the newfound production. Perhaps the main reason for the improved scoring output has been the emergence of redshirt freshman Russell Wilson who has thrown for eight touchdowns in the last four contests while also accounting for two rushing scores with no interceptions over that time. Russell has the ability to make plays and could cause numerous problems for a severely banged up Duke defense.
In the backfield the Pack will go with senior Andre Brown and fourth year junior Jamelle Eugene. Both backs have the experience and ability to give NC State a passable ground attack. The 6', 230lbs Brown gets the lion-share of the work most weeks averaging 13 carries for 54 yards, while the speedy Eugene usually comes in for spot duty averaging eight carries for 39 yards per game. Both Brown and Eugene are also threats in the passing as well combining for nearly six catches per contest.
The second half of the passing game features a stable of young, but talented receivers led by Owen Spencer and T.J. Graham. Spencer (6'3, 180, SO) leads the team in catches (20), yards (405), and is second on the team with a pair of touchdowns. In each of the last three games (against Boston College, Florida State, and Maryland) he has amassed more than 80 yards thanks to plays of 48, 61, and 67 yards. A secondary target, Graham (6', 180, FR) - a former three star prospect - will look to build on a solid game against the Terrapins in which he snagged three catches for 20 yards. Red-shirt freshman George Bryan (6'5, 265) has shown not only the ability to help out in the running game, but also a surprising level of athleticism in the passing game where he's averaging 2.7 catches for 29 yards per game.
In the trenches the Wolfpack have also benefitted from Wilson's ability to make plays with his legs as he's been able to buy time for himself as a largely inexperienced offensive line has taken time to improve and settle in. As the line has gotten better, Wilson has been able to move from just buying time into looking to make positive plays with the ball on his own.
When Duke Has The Ball:
For all the improved performances on the offensive side of the ball, the Wolfpack have suffered on the defensive side of things. All told this game will feature the league's two worst scoring defenses though Duke (22.6) has been substantially better than NC State (30.1) over the course of year.
Injuries have played a part, as has a general lack of depth throughout the defensive backfield (this is something the two teams have in common as the Blue Devils were down to just two healthy cornerbacks a week ago). Given those concerns it's no surprise that opponents have been able to spread the Wolfpack out with multiple receiver sets resulting in the league's worst total defense mark (allowing 412.8 yards per contest). It hasn't just been the passing game where State is surrendering 243 yards per game while forcing just nine interceptions all season - the Wolfpack's defensive backfield has also struggled to help the front four when runners break through the line (NCSU allows an ACC worst 170.1 yards rushing per game).
The Blue Devils should be able to move the ball again State and avoid third and long situations - something that has been much improved this season. The Wolfpack are the league's most generous team when it comes to third down conversions - allowing their opponents a fresh set of downs 43 percent of the time which ties in with Duke's 41 percent third down conversion rate.
For Duke this game will be indicative of the rest of the season. A few bad bounces coupled with a few untimely mistakes have prevented this team from sitting at 6-2 on the season. Instead Coach Cutcliffe's team finds itself at 4-4 on the year and coming off a game it gift-wrapped for Wake Forest. In years past such a result sent the Blue Devils into a downward spiral for weeks at a time. Cutcliffe's message this week has been to move on. If his team has taken the message to heart they can (and should) win on Saturday. Thaddeus Lewis will be given enough time to check through his progressions, and a much improved Duke running game should be able to relieve some of the pressure State's front four can bring. A real key will be correcting the special teams mistakes that surrendered 30 points to Wake Forest a week ago thanks to being obliterated in the battle of field position.
State - 21