JOHNSON: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

A look at how NC State has exceeded expectations through the first seven games of the 2010 season and whether the Wolfpack can keep it up during the final weeks.

NC State has given its fans a lot of different looks so far this year.

The offense has looked unstoppable on some drives; hopelessly lost on others. The defense rotates from unbearable to incredible. Special teams will block a punt, and then give up a kickoff return for a touchdown. Somewhere between the ups and downs of watching this team get off to a 5-2 start, there is an identity to the Pack.

You can't understand a team without watching it on the field, but the box score can give insight that would otherwise go overlooked. The right stats can explain a lot about the Pack - how they've managed to surprise those outside of Raleigh and whether they can keep it up during the home stretch. Let's start on the offensive side of the ball.

Offense 2010 (National Rank) 2009 (National Rank)
Points per Game 36.0 (17) 30.3 (30)
Yards per Play 5.6 (52) 5.6 (57)
Yards per Pass Attempt 7.2 (55) 7.8 (27)
Yards per Rush 3.79 (79) 3.46 (103)
3rd Down Conversion % 40.5% (55) 44.8% (22)
Turnovers per game 2.2 (92) 2.4 (89)
Red Zone Efficiency 76% (92) 90% (14)

The first place to look is at yards per play – how many yards you give up each defensive snap and how many yards you gain each offensive snap. If there is one catch-all stat that shows the overall strength of an offense or defense, yards per play comes the closest to being that stat.

With the return of Russell Wilson, the Pack offense is firing at about the same pace as last year. The team is scoring almost a touchdown more per game thanks in large part to a defense that's giving it a lot more opportunity, but the offense is gaining an identical 5.6 yards per play.

The passing is down a little, the running is up a little. Turnovers are about the same, but still an area for improvement as the Pack ranks near the bottom nationally in giveaways. Third down conversions are down, but not significantly, as the Pack is converting about one less third down in every 20 attempts.

The sore spot for the Pack offense this year has been inside the red zone. They've scored on three out of every four trips, which sounds good until you notice that last year they scored on nine out of every 10 trips. Not only that, but they are having a lot of trouble getting the ball in the endzone once they get inside the 20-yard line. Ten of their 29 scores in the red zone have been field goals, while last season they only kicked eight field goals out of 43 scores.

The Pack has been putting more points on the board, but the scoreboard is hiding some real issues with the offense in the red zone. Those are issues that need to be rectified because the Pack can't expect to keep coming up empty in the red zone and still beat quality competition.

Defense 2010 (National Rank) 2009 (National Rank)
Points per Game 23.7 (60) 31.2 (99)
Yards per Play 5.5 (71) 5.7 (77)
Yards per Pass Attempt 6.9 (59) 7.9 (96)
Yards per Rush 4.3 (70) 3.9 (59)
3rd Down Conversion % 28.7 (5) 42.5 (92)
Turnovers per game 2.7 (10) 1.2 (115)
Red Zone Efficiency 89% (100) 81% (53)

What's odd at first glance about the Pack defense is just how similar it is to last year's unit – a squad that gave up 31 points a game and had fans calling for the head of defensive coordinator Mike Archer.

The defense is giving up almost the same yards per play as last year, and while it's improved in the passing game its gotten worse at stopping the run. The numbers back up what we're seeing with our eyes – this team still has tackling issues. It's also gotten worse in the red zone, where the Pack is allowing opponents to score on 90 percent of their trips.

The improvement all comes down to huge leaps forward in two areas – forcing turnovers and getting off the field on third down. Last year the Pack couldn't do either of these things, ranking among the bottom 30 nationally in both categories. Somehow – whether through the development of players, the new blitz schemes introduced by Jon Tenuta or just dumb luck – the Pack has become one of the best teams in the nation in both categories.

The defense went from getting one turnover a game to nearly three and has managed to return a few of those turnovers for defensive touchdowns. The Pack has also done a great job of stopping teams on third down, ranking in the top 5 in the category nationally by forcing teams to punt in nearly three out of every four third down attempts. Those two improvements have led to a vastly improved defensive squad that's allowing one less touchdown per game.

Can they keep it up?

Fundamentally, the 2009 version of the Wolfpack is eerily similar to the 2010 version. Neither the offense nor defense is spectacular. But its defense's ability to maintain its incredible play on third down and its ability to take the ball away will decide how far this team can go.

If the defensive continues to be opportunistic and the offense fixes its red zone problems, this is a team capable of winning the Atlantic Division. But if the defense slips in either of those two areas, the Pack is going to struggle to find wins over the final month.

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