To say that NC State's defensive line is thin right now would be a gross understatement. They, simply put, devastated by injuries – of the 10 players listed on Thursday's injury report five were defensive linemen. The Pack will play Georgia Tech without the help of Brian Slay, Jeff Rieskamp, AJ Ferguson and Thomas Teal. Things are so bleak that rumor has it fullback Taylor Gentry was taking snaps on the defensive line this week in practice.
The small ray of hope on the injury report – JR Sweezy being upgraded to questionable. Sweezy, an All-ACC honorable mention last year and the Pack's best defensive lineman, has missed all four games to start the season after injuring his foot in the preseason. Sweezy was a major part of the Pack's success against the Yellow Jackets in 2010, and if he can suit up he could provide a major boost to the defense as a whole.
2. Can Georgia Tech's offense be stopped?
Through four games, there has been no better offense in the nation than Georgia Tech. Paul Johnson's triple option attack has always been dangerous but with Tevon Washington at quarterback it's become a machine of efficiency. The Yellow Jackets lead all FBS teams in yards per play with 9.4, yards per pass attempt with 19.7 and rank third in yards per rush with 7.2. As you might assume, they also lead the nation in scoring with 53 points per game.
But there is a weakness that the Pack could potentially exploit – turnovers. The Jackets have a habit of putting the ball on the ground on some of its more complex pitch plays, and the Pack absolutely has to take advantage of every loose ball. If the Pack can figure out a way to slow down the ground game slightly and jump on some fumbles, it has a chance to slow down this offense.
3. Will the Pack's offensive line improve?
While the defensive line can point to a procession of injuries, the struggles of the offensive line can't use the same excuse. Whether you want to point to the six sacks allowed or the -26 net rushing yards for the Pack offense (the lowest total for the Pack since the 1940s), last Thursday was an ugly display for a veteran unit that was expected to be a strength coming into the season.
O'Brien called the play of his line so far this season perplexing, not something you want to hear from a coach renowned for building offensive lines at his previous school. But it's clear that the coaching staff has made this unit a priority this week and we'll see if that translates to better protection for Mike Glennon and better running lanes.
4. Can anyone run the football effectively for the Pack?
The lack of a running game wasn't entirely on the offense line however. Even with no holes to run through, the Pack running backs should have been able to do better than 12 carries for a net of four yards against the Bearcats. Obviously the Pack desperately misses Mustafa Greene, but he's out for at least another week and in the meantime someone on the roster has to be able to get three yards a carry.
With Curtis Underwood out on Saturday, James Washington will start and Tony Creecy will see an increased workload. If neither of them can show marked improvement in the running attack, O'Brien needs to try something out of his comfort zone – perhaps something as crazy as handing the ball to his tough, bruising fullback.
5. Can the Pack find a way to boost its confidence early?
NC State needs something positive to happen early on Saturday. They need to score on their first drive, or create a big turnover or generate a big play on special teams. Really anything will work – they just need something to erase the taste of being embarrassed on national television and give the team some confidence that they can beat Georgia Tech.
If the Pack jumps out to an early lead and gets some momentum behind it at home, then it has a chance. But if Tech gets a lead and the Pack is forced to play catch-up once again, it could be a long day in Carter-Finley.