It is fairly unrealistic to expect an offense led by a quarterback starting just his second game to come out clicking on all cylinders. The Wolfpack offense will not be great overnight. Instead, it will be a building process over time, taking a few steps forward with occasional setbacks.
With that in mind, most observers considered NC State's defense to be the strength of the team, with that unit hopefully buying time for the offense to come around and certainly keeping the Pack out of huge come-from-behind situations.
On Saturday the Wolfpack defense simply looked out-manned, out of sorts and out of answers.
Make no mistake, there was plenty of blame to go around but the Pack needed its veteran linebackers and secondary to make plays and they didn't get it done. With a patchwork defensive front providing little push at the line of scrimmage, State's linebackers and defensive backs appeared a step slow and that was on a good play. For most of the game they were three and four steps slow and seemed to be chasing Wake Forest's receivers all over the field instead of defending them.
Give Wake Forest some credit. While their running game wasn't fantastic it was enough to keep State honest. They also schemed the Pack in such a way that they used State's blitzes to get the Wolfpack defenders out of position which left State scrambling to play catch up way too often. The tackling was shoddy at times but the overall intensity and team speed just seemed lackluster.
Something That Worked
Mike Glennon in the second half. Unofficially we had Glennon 17-28 for 263 yards and three touchdowns in the second half. Was Glennon perfect? No. But he did more than enough to help NC State win this game.
His 65-yard pass to Tobais Palmer covered 60 yards through the air and was on the money. Facing an all-out blitz from Wake Forest on fourth down, Glennon used nothing but arm strength to get the ball to T.J. Graham on a 63-yard score. When you consider the myriad of mistakes State made in other facets of the game, Glennon's performance in the second half was one of the lone bright spots.
Something That Didn't
Inability to avoid costly mistakes. Down 20-6 to start the second half, NC State needed error-free football if they were going to have an opportunity to get back in the game. What they got instead was a needless block in the back on a beautiful 97-yard kickoff return by T.J Graham, a clipping penalty by Duran Christophe that killed a drive, an interception from Glennon that led to a Wake Forest score, a critical drop by George Bryan that would've extended the Pack's final drive and breakdowns on kickoff coverage.
In hindsight it's remarkable that the Wolfpack even found itself in position to tie the game considering the mistakes made in the second half.
NC State's Player Of The Game
While Glennon had an impressive second half, we're going to go with senior wide receiver T.J. Graham. He caught a pass while on his back, gave State good kick returns all day and proved to be the Wolfpack's most reliable wide receiver. He would finish with six catches for 117 yards and a touchdown while adding another 71 yards on kickoff returns. Seniors are expected to step up and we've noticed a focus out of Graham this season that we've not seen previously.
He is quickly establishing himself as a go-to guy on offense and a deadly weapon on special teams.
NC State's two freshmen kickers. Lost in Saturday's defeat was the performance of kicker Niklas Sade and punter Wil Baumann. Sade nailed both of his field goal attempts and that was a huge step for a true freshman kicking on the road for the first time. He also averaged nearly 60 yards per kickoff which would've been better except for one sky kick mixed in. All of his other kickoffs were beyond or near the goal line and clearly this is a huge improvement for State over the last few seasons.
Baumann was equally impressive and may have given State's most complete punting effort in years. He totaled four punts, averaging nearly 42 yards per kick with a best of 47. He also put three of those inside the Wake Forest 20-yard line.
If you're looking for an explosive player on the verge of breaking out then junior wide receiver Tobais Palmer certainly fits the bill. Clearly Palmer has that rare extra gear and he just looks football fast.
Tough and explosive, he plays with a tremendous amount of intensity and he's going to give defensive coordinators something to game plan for headed forward. On Saturday he finished with seven catches for 96 yards and a score.
Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due
You have to give a tip of the hat to the Wake Forest offense and its coaches. They confounded the Wolfpack defense all day with misdirection and crossing patterns. All too often the Pack was left chasing plays from behind and couldn't seem to make a play on third down to get off the field.
Although sacked three times, Wake quarterback Tanner Price never wavered and did a masterful job of buying time and hitting receivers that appeared wide open more often than not.
Unfortunately for NC State it was a different year in Winston-Salem with very similar results when it came to slowing down the Wake Forest offense.
Where To Go From Here
NC State head coach Tom O'Brien seemed pretty disgusted with the effort on Saturday and was as demonstrative about fixing it as you'll ever see him. He mentioned the Pack needing leaders to emerge and clearly that's something State is desperately searching for on both sides of the ball.
As bad as it seemed at times on Saturday there were positives to be found and areas that State can build on. The Wolfpack was able to run the ball occasionally and pick up chunks of yards, at least until the score of the game took that away.
Mike Glennon proved that he can make plays even when the threat of the run was virtually nonexistent. The Pack also showed that it could fight back from a huge deficit and get good play from some of its wide receivers.
The specialists were a bright spot and they have the potential to become a pretty solid weapon as they gain experience.
Beyond that, many of State's problems were self-inflicted. You simply don't see tight end George Bryan drop a pass that hits him right in the hands. When was the last time State was called for a chop block? Why was Mario Carter blocking in the back when T.J. Graham had already passed him on the way to a touchdown return?
Fortunately, these are issues that can be corrected.
Defensively, State appears to have bigger problems and this fix may not be as easy. Gone is the leadership provided last year by Nate Irving. Injuries have depleted the defensive line and forced State to rely on freshmen. Coverage in the secondary has been sporadic.
Yes, State has created turnovers but when they've not, have given up way too much yardage and points. In particular, this is two weeks in a row where they have been extremely porous in pass defense. The back seven were supposed to be the strength of the team but two games in, are looking more like a liability.
They'll have a week to work out some of the kinks against South Alabama before heading to Cincinnati to face the Bearcat's pass-happy offense. If State doesn't find some answers and leaders soon, 2011 could prove to be a long year.