With first place in the Atlantic division on the line, the stage couldn't have been bigger for NC State on Saturday. A win over Clemson would keep the Pack as the team to beat for a spot in the ACC championship game. The combination of blown opportunities and lack of execution doomed the Pack with the Tigers prevailing, 14-13. Pack Pride takes a look back at State's disappointing loss.
Everything started well enough
After winning the toss, Clemson elected to receive the ball on offense and was quickly forced into a three and out by the Wolfpack defense. The key play on the Tiger's opening drive was a forced fumble by LB Terrell Manning that erased what would have been a Clemson first down, instead leaving the Tigers facing a fourth and two.
State would take the ensuing punt and methodically drive down the field, using some short runs and passes while also getting some help from Clemson on a pass interference call with the Pack facing a third and six.
On the next play Russell Wilson hit RB Mustafa Greene for a three yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead. Unfortunately for NC State it was pretty much all downhill from there.
Give the defense some credit
Any kudos for the defense comes with the caveat that Clemson looked disheveled on offense almost from the opening kickoff. They were clearly out of sync but some of the credit for that has to go to the NC State defense.
Consider, the Pack held the Tigers to just 46 yards rushing and a 1.1 yards per carry average. State forced three sacks, two fumbles and one interception. In five red zone opportunities, the Pack allowed Clemson scores just twice. State also tallied seven tackles for loss.
Clearly the Wolfpack defense played well enough to win this game but it was wasted on poor offensive execution and a myriad of breakdowns.
Better to give than receive?
Clemson gave the NC State offense the game on a platter but the Pack simply couldn't take advantage of their opportunities.
After a Terrell Manning interception, the Pack drives 70 yards and has a field goal blocked. Three points lost. Clemson fumbles on their own seven yard line. Russell Wilson throws an interception in the end zone. 10 points lost. Clemson fumbles on their 13 yard line. State gains just one yard and kicks a field goal. 14 points lost.
Say what you want but the inability to capitalize on these opportunities cost NC State the game. At a minimum the Pack should have come away with nine points and 21 at the most. In a game decided by one point it doesn't take a math major to figure it out.
Special teams a common thread in losses
Looking back at losses to Clemson, Virginia Tech and East Carolina, special teams played a prominent role in each defeat.
A kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half resurrected a dead Hokie's team.
The Pack missed a chippy field goal and gave up a big return to set East Carolina up with a short field, allowing the Pirates to kick a game tying field goal to force overtime.
Against the Tigers, the Pack had a blocked field goal, a four yard punt and allowed Marcus Gilchrist a 76 yard kickoff return. That return didn't result in points for the Tigers but clearly flipped the field on State late in the game.
NC State is a team that has very little margin of error when they play quality opponents. It has become clear that special teams can be the difference between winning and losing these games. The Pack has to clean this up if they want to have a shot at beating either Maryland or UNC down the stretch.
Pack just not physical enough on offense?
Clemson's front four dominated the NC State offensive line Saturday and that's putting it mildly. The Wolfpack running backs could muster just 34 net yards on 20 carries with no run longer than four yards.
If you want to talk about the Wolfpack's horrid record in the red zone then look no further than the inability to run the ball. The spread offense by nature is a finesse offense but once inside the 20, the field shrinks, teams can drop seven in coverage and there's very little space for receivers to get open.
This is exactly why being able to run the ball is so critical. Opposing teams have been able to stuff the Pack with their front four and force State to beat them with precision passes.
NC State has to develop a nastier attitude in the run game. Perhaps this means running the ball more with Wilson under center, putting a full back in the backfield and running out of the I, anything to give the run game a fresh look. Clearly, State's zone read, delayed handoff run game out of the shotgun isn't being effective consistently enough for the Pack to score touchdowns efficiently.
The offensive linemen have to take it upon themselves to turn this trend around. Running the football is a lot about schemes but attitude and physicality are equally crucial.
Much has been said, and rightfully so, about Tom O'Brien's decision to punt facing fourth and one late in the game Saturday. Count me in as one who was scratching his head when the punt team took the field. However, perhaps more so than just the game situation itself, I felt the Pack should've gone for it because they had put together five plays in a row that picked up positive yardage. Other than one other drive in the second half, that was as effective as State had been since the first half moving the ball.
O'Brien's logic was that the Pack failed to pick up a yard on the previous play and he wasn't confident they would do it on fourth down. However, State had picked up 19 yards prior to Wilson's one yard run on third down. Taking it a step further, the Wolfpack failed to get one yard on three straight plays against Florida State but went for it on fourth and one late against the Noles.
But despite all the gnashing of teeth from fans about the call, it didn't lose the game for NC State. The Pack got the ball back with plenty of time to win the game but simply couldn't execute.
Pack has become consistently inconsistent
After a 4-0 start the Pack has become pretty predictable. Since their impressive start- State has lost, won, lost, won and lost. Using that formula, State should be in pretty good shape against Wake Forest next Saturday.
On paper the Pack should beat Wake Forest when the Deacs come to Carter-Finley Stadium next Saturday. However, State has shown (at times) they can definitely play poorly enough to lose games they should win.
The bigger question may be whether the Wolfpack can eliminate the offensive and special team's miscues that have dogged it during the last two road games. They must if they hope to have any shot against UNC and Maryland and a shot at an ACC title. It's been a long time since 1979. I'm sure there are plenty of Wolfpack faithful that question whether they have another 30 years to wait for the next opportunity.
Observations From the Game: Clemson
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