Opponent Preview: N.C. State Wolfpack

Maryland wraps up its regular season with the Debbie Yow Bowl against a struggling N.C. State team that has lost seven straight games. The Wolfpack (3-8, 0-7 ACC) haven't won a conference game this season, and though they're playing in Raleigh, they are just 3-4 at home. Last week, N.C. State lost to instate rival and Conference USA foe East Carolina, 42-28.

Maryland wraps up its regular season with the Debbie Yow Bowl against a struggling N.C. State team that has lost seven straight games. The Wolfpack (3-8, 0-7 ACC) haven't won a conference game this season, and though they're playing in Raleigh, they are just 3-4 at home. Last week, N.C. State lost to instate rival and Conference USA foe East Carolina, 42-28.

Growing pains: N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren is in his first year, and essentially he's had to start from scratch. Though some fans have questioned his play calling and his coordinators' game planning during this current seven-game losing skid, the fact of the matter is the Wolfpack have one of the youngest teams in the ACC and don't boast a ton of depth.

Through all the adversity, though -- which has featured three straight double-digit defeats, three straight home defeats, zero ACC wins and zero road wins -- Doeren has remained positive. He pointed out how, down 35-7 to East Carolina last week, the team fought back and outscored its opponent in the fourth quarter for just the third time all year. Doeren has harped on themes like building for the future, playing with grit and coming together as a team, in hopes that it will pay off down the road.

"We are a very strong team from a chemistry standpoint," Doeren told the media after N.C. State's loss to East Carolina. "We've spent a ton of time talking about the values of our program. I think every player and coach to a man has grown a lot this year. Our guys love each other and we care a lot about our players. We push them hard and they practice hard. That isn't going to stop."

Not as good as the numbers suggest, and… The numbers aren't particularly good to begin with. Right now N.C. State is ninth out of 14 teams in total defense, allowing 396.5 yards per game. That's not terrible, but during five of the last six games, the Wolfpack have surrendered at least 400 yards, including last week's game when East Carolina rolled up 445 on them.

State's pass defense efficiency is actually ranked in the top tier of the ACC, but that's a bit misleading because most teams opt to run the ball right at them. The Wolfpack give up 181 rushing yards per game, one of the worst two averages in the conference. And before a recent string of OK performances in mid-November, N.C. State's defense was actually ranked last in the ACC in scoring defense, rushing defense, pass defense and pass efficiency.

Moreover, N.C. State hasn't kept an opponent under 38 points in almost a month as ECU (42), Boston College (38) and Duke (38) combined to put up a 118 spot. The 29.2 points per game the Wolfpack allow is better than only Virginia in the conference.

First-year defensive coordinator Mike Archer, who runs a 4-3 scheme, called out his defense a few weeks back, critiquing the team's shoddy tackling and inability to fill the gaps. State doesn't have terrific depth, but Archer wanted more effort.

Not as good as the numbers suggest, and… The numbers aren't particularly good to begin with. N.C. State's offense, which favors a hurry-up approach in order to limit what defenses can do to them, is picking up a rather respectable 408.3 yards per game (seventh in the ACC). Last week State saw its fifth-year senior starting quarterback and young receivers take some major strides (see below).

But some of those yards have come in garbage time, and the team as a whole is averaging just 5.2 yards per play, which ranks in the bottom third of the league. It follows that N.C. State is scoring just 23 points per game, one of the worst four averages in the conference. Last week, for example, ECU had the game well in hand when State scored two touchdowns in the last minute to make the score a much more respectable 42-28. And while the Pack may have scored 28 last week, against ACC foes N.C. State has eclipsed the 20-point threshold just twice in seven tries.

The Wolfpack does do a good job of controlling the clock, holding the ball more almost 32 minutes per game, fourth in the ACC. But that's offset by State's gaudy turnover numbers (see below), red-zone problems (see below) and average third-down conversion rate (see below).

Giveth and taketh away: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. The Pack gives them up, the Pack takes them away (from opponents). For the season, the only ACC team that has coughed the ball up more than N.C. State is Maryland. The Wolfpack have 21 miscues this year, including 15 interceptions and six fumbles. That said, while the Pack had given the ball up at least once in every game this season, they managed to stay turnover-free against East Carolina, leaving them with a minus-one ratio for the season.

Naturally, that means State has forced 20 turnovers this year, which puts them in the upper echelon of the ACC. The Pack has snared an impressive 12 interceptions while pouncing on eight fumbles, though they did not record a turnover against ECU last week.

Red Zone woes: Sure, N.C. State has piled up some junk yardage that has made its offense look respectable, but the Pack hasn't converted when it counts. State is succeeding just 79 percent (27 of 34) of its red-zone opportunities, ranking among the bottom four team in the conference. On top of that, State has scored just 14 touchdowns in those 34 attempts (41 percent), putting them near the bottom of the league. That said, N.C. State did score on three of their four trips inside the ECU 20-yard line last week, and all the possessions resulted in touchdowns.

While State's red-zone offense improved last week, its defense continued its porous ways as ECU scored all five times inside the 20. For the season, N.C. State has allowed foes to cross the goal line an eye-popping 83 percent (30 of 36) of the times they penetrate deep into Wolfpack territory. Overall, the Pack have allowed foes to score on 34 of 36 red-zone possessions, the worst in the conference and third worst in the nation.

Pirates rule North Carolina: OK, so this doesn't specifically relate to N.C. State, but the Wolfpack's loss to ECU ensured the Pirates, which play in Conference USA, won the battle of North Carolina this year. By knocking off N.C. State, it's the first time ECU has defeated both the Wolfpack and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the same season. Ever. And they beat both on the road, no less. Take that, ACC.

As for N.C. State, they went oh-for in Carolina this year. That's right, they lost to not only ECU, but North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest too. Add in South Carolina, and State fell to Clemson as well, making them 0-5 in the Carolinas.

Converting on third down: N.C. State ranks in the middle of the ACC with its 39 percent success rate on third down. Last week, the Wolfpack was faced with 21 third-down chances and impressively converted 11 of them into first downs.

But State isn't quite as good at ending opponents' drives. East Carolina was 8 of 12 on third down last week, and for the season the Wolfpack is allowing teams to succeed on about 40 percent of its attempts, which ranks in the bottom half of the ACC.

Back in the saddle: Think C.J. Brown has been snake bitten by injuries this year? Well, the Wolfpack's fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell (6-4, 239) hurt his foot during N.C. State's first game and missed the next six. Mitchell returned during State's Oct. 26 game against Florida State, but he was not immediately handed the full-time job what with junior Pete Thomas (6-6, 236) holding the reins.

In fact, Mitchell didn't play his first full game -- taking every snap from start to finish -- until last week's game against East Carolina. But for a guy who looked rattled most of the year, he actually responded quite well, completing 28 of 44 passes for a career-high 312 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions. After a shaky start, Mitchell recovered and put together a strong second half, throwing three fourth-quarter touchdowns as N.C. State fought back from a 35-7 lead with 5:02 left in the third quarter.

For the season, Mitchell has completed 65 of 120 passes (54.2 percent) for 811 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions, so he's been somewhat erratic with the opportunities he's been given.

Mitchell's backup, Thomas, is completing 60.3 percent of his throws (149 for 247), but he's also sporting an unsightly four-touchdown-to-nine-interception ratio. Before the ECU game, though, Thomas started against Boston College and completed 22 of 33 passes for 207 yards, a touchdown and zero picks.

Between Thomas and Mitchell, N.C. State is averaging 244.5 passing yards per game, which is right in the middle of the ACC pack.

Opening up the holes: After shuffling and reshuffling their offensive line the first three weeks, N.C. State has found consistency the last eight games. Left tackle Joe Thuney (6-5, 286, So.), left guard Duran Christophe (6-5, 300, Sr.), center Quinton Schooley (6-4, 285, So.), right guard Alex Barr (6-7, 326, So.) and right tackle Tyson Chandler (6-7, 334, Jr.) have combined to form quite a formidable group in terms of run blocking. Barr, for his part, has been singled out for his play and even won a team offensive player of the week award this year.

Through eight games, N.C. State had already surpassed its 2012 rushing total, and for the season the Pack is up to 1,801 net yards. They are averaging 164 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry, numbers that are hardly awe-inspiring (they rank in the middle of the ACC) but still solid. Last week, though, State had some trouble running against East Carolina, needing 39 total carries just to get to 134 yards.

But while the run blocking has been relatively steady, the O-line hasn't exactly resembled the Hogs this year. The Wolfpack have surrendered 30 quarterback takedowns in 2013, and only Pittsburgh has given up more in the conference. If that weren't enough, State's 8.1 tackles for loss allowed per game is worst in the ACC and 118th nationally.

Although ECU managed just one sack last week, State is surrendering 2.73 per game (30 for the season), an average that ranks among the bottom 25 teams in Division I-A college football.

Of course, many of those sacks and TFLs came during the season's first three weeks when State was working out the kinks (lowlighted by Clemson's five-sack game against them). But although the unit's improved since then, the front five still gave up four sacks in a loss to Boston College two weeks ago and three to Florida State in October.

Benefitting from the run blocking…: Are N.C. State's top two runners, who are both averaging 4.0 yards per carry or more. Shadrach Thornton (6-1, 203, So.) is picking up 4.6 yards a tote and has 672 yards on 147 carries and four touchdowns this season. Last week, however, he was bottled up and only managed 66 yards on 20 attempts, which works out to 3.3 YPC. But in the two games prior to ECU, Thornton averaged over 4.0 yards per carry and had a 110-yard outing Nov. 9 against Duke.

Thornton's backup, Matt Dayes (5-9, 213, Fr.), has 63 carries for 252 yards and four touchdowns in 2013. Last week he received eight carries and managed 31 yards against ECU.

As a whole, N.C. State has rushed for 1,801 yards and averages 164 per game, good enough for eighth in the ACC.

Making strides: N.C. State's receiving corps showed out against East Carolina last week, specifically freshman Jurmichael Ramos (6-3, 198), who caught five passes and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, starting slot receiver Rashard Smith (5-9, 177, Sr.) eclipsed the century mark with seven receptions for 104 yards and a touchdown, and Quintin Payton (6-4, 212, Sr.) chipped in four catches for 91 yards. After hauling in five touchdown passes during State's first nine games, the Pack has now pulled in seven during the last two.

For the season, Smith leads the way with 43 catches for 463 yards and two scores. He's a reliable, sure-handed option who can make plays with his open-field moves. State's second best option, Bryan Underwood, has 32 catches but has been out with an injury. That's allowed the freshman Ramos to step up. The long striding wideout has pulled down 23 throws for 331 and three touchdowns, the latter stat tying for a team high with Payton.

For his part, Payton is fourth on the squad with 22 catches, though his 19.7 yards per reception is by far the best on the squad. He has an 80-yard score among his trio of touchdowns this year.

Travares Copeland (5-11, 187, So.) is listed as a starter, but he's caught just 15 passes for 139 yards and no scores all year. The starting tight end, Asa Watson (6-3, 237, Sr.), meanwhile, is mainly a blocker and has only three receptions in 2013.

No pressure?: N.C. State's rush defense and pass rush leaves something to be desired. The Wolfpack allow 181 rushing yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry and have just 20 sacks all year. Last week East Carolina averaged 4.2 yards a carry and gained 170 yards while scoring three rushing touchdowns. ECU also surrendered just one sack.

But this isn't really a line problem as the linebackers haven't always maintained gap integrity or wrapped up. N.C. State's front four has actually done well -- at times -- taking on blockers and getting penetration without the help of a blitz. In fact, 15 of the team's 20 sacks have come courtesy of the front four, as well as 32 tackles for loss. As a whole, State racks up more than seven TFLs per game, one of the conference's highest averages.

Defensive tackle Thomas Teal (6-1, 303, Jr.) leads the unit with 34 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hits. Teal had half-a-dozen tackles last week and at times has proven to be a load inside.

Freshman Monty Nelson (6-2, 310, Fr.) plays next to Teal and has 29 tackles, 7.5 TFLs and half a sack this season. Like any freshman, Nelson, who had four tackles against ECU, has had his share of growing pains, though he's not played poorly for a young-in starting up front.

The end spots are manned by Art Norman (6-0, 250, Jr.) and Darryl Cato-Bishop (6-3, 266, Sr.). The former has 28 tackles, nine TFLs and a team-high 4.5 sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a recovery. Norman had two stops and didn't register any other stats against East Carolina. Cato-Bishop, meanwhile, who is coming off a three-tackle game, has just 19 stops, but he's still managed three TFLs, a half-sack, a forced fumble, two recoveries and three quarterback hits.

State rotates in a few other linemen who have contributed this year, including tackles T.Y. McGill (6-1, 293, Jr.) and Carlos Gray (6-3, 296, So.) and ends Forrest West (6-1, 251, Sr.) and Mike Rose (6-3, 252, So.). Gray has 23 stops, 3.5 TFLs and 2.5 sacks, while McGill has 20 tackles, four TFLs and two sacks. West, meanwhile, has only 10 tackles but three of those have been behind the line. Rose has chipped in 18 tackles, four TFLs, two sacks, four combined pass breakups and a fumble recovery.

Trouble wrapping up: The linebackers are probably State's most oft-critiqued unit, despite the fact the trio has racked up tackles like nobody's business. The group has had some missed tackles and failed to maintain gap integrity, evidenced by the 5.1 yards per carry and 23 rushing touchdowns they've allowed.

Senior middle linebacker Robert Caldwell (6-3, 250) -- who leads the Pack with a team-high 97 tackles and 13.5 TFLs, two sacks, an interception and four quarterback hurries -- has been steady, however. Caldwell had a big game against ECU, racking up a team-high 10 tackles, a sack and three TFLs.

On the strong side, senior D.J. Green (6-4, 225), who missed all of last season due to a suspension, has chipped in with 58 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. Green had two tackles and a pair of TFLs last week.

The weak side linebacker, Brandon Pittman (6-4, 225, Jr.), has 54 tackles, six TFLs, and three sacks. Pittman had five tackles against ECU.

State has a few other linebackers rotating in, but none have made significant contributions.

Strength in the secondary: N.C. State lost its top defensive back from last season, second-round draft pick and 2011 Jack Tatum award winner David Amerson, but the Wolfpack still allow just 216 yards per game, 40th nationally. Granted, the young cornerback duo of true freshman Jack Tocho (6-1, 195) and sophomore Juston Burris (6-1, 206) have made a few mistakes this year -- last week ECU passed for 255 yards and three touchdowns -- but the pair has held its own. They've combined for three of N.C. State's 12 interceptions this year, a total that ranks seventh in the ACC. Burris also has 50 tackles and 11 combined breakups/pass defenses, while Tocho has 24 stops, two picks and eight defenses.

Starting senior safety Jarvus Byrd tore his ACL (for the third time in his career) in a loss at Wake Forest earlier this season, forcing junior Dontae Johnson (6-2, 195) to move back from corner to safety (where he played his freshman and sophomore year). Johnson leads the team with three interceptions this season and ranks second with 77 tackles, while also recording a forced fumble and seven pass defenses. Strong safety Hakim Jones (6-2, 202, So.) has two picks this season to go with 58 tackles and a team-high 18 breakups. Last week these two combined for 19 tackles and a breakup.

N.C. State's secondary is not deep, however, and the backups are all underclassmen as well. Teams with savvy quarterbacks have been able to expose this unit at times.

Special Teams: While N.C. State has had its struggles in the game's other two phases, the Wolfpack special teams has been decent this season. Kicker Niklas Sade (6-3, 212, Jr.) has hit on 19 of 23 attempts, and his 83 percent success rate is fourth in the ACC. Sade missed his only attempt beyond 50 yards, though, so don't expect him to nail a game-winning 52 yarder like BC last week. But while he may not have any from 50-plus, Sade is 5-of-7 from 40-49 yards, 4-of-5 from 30-39, 9-of-9 from 20-29, and 1-of-1 inside 20 yards. Sade is also averaging 61.5 yards on kickoffs and has sent 29 of 54 boots into the end zone for touchbacks.

Punter Will Baumann (6-6, 190, Jr.), meanwhile, is seventh in the ACC with a 42.2 yard average. Of his 62 boots, he's sent 13 50-plus yards and placed 18 inside opponents' 20-yard lines.

As for returns, N.C. State ranks among the top 25 teams in the country for punt bring-backs at 13.95 yards per tote. Rashard Smith, who is picking up 15.3 yards per return, is the primary option and has already scored two touchdowns this year.

But it's a 180-degree turn for the kick returners, as State is one of the worst 10 teams nationally in that category. Bra'Lon Cherry (5-11, 187, Fr.), Johnathan Alston (6-3, 203, Fr.), Rashard Smith and Matt Dayes (5-9, 213, Fr.) are all picking up 17 yards or more per return, but the team's 18.1 average is third worst in the ACC and 114th in the country.

The punt/kick-return disparity extends to N.C. State's coverage units. The Wolfpack's punt return defense keeps foes to just 5.2 yards per return, one of the lowest averages nationally. But their kick coverage has been shaky at best, as they've given up a touchdown and allowed foes to gain almost 26 yards a bring-back, worst in the conference.

Rachel Klein contributed to this article

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