Turning Up The Heat

In the first half of Saturday's 38-24 win over Central Michigan, many of the defensive issues that have plagued NC State all season were front and center.

The Wolfpack struggled to put pressure on quarterback Ryan Radcliff (15-of-17 for 196 yards and two touchdowns in the first 30 minutes), missed several tackles in the open field and couldn't find a way to consistently stop the Chippewas on third down. It was all too familiar for an NC State defense that has underachieved midway through the 2011 campaign.

Central Michigan took advantage, racking up 254 offensive yards on 30 first half plays to stay right with an NC State offense that had luckily found some early game rhythm of its own. In a non-conference game that NC State had hoped to dominate, the Wolfpack's 21-17 halftime lead was tenuous, at best.

For NC State coaches and players struggling figure out a way to stop Central Michigan at all, the break couldn't have come at a more perfect time.

"I don't know what we were doing there for a while," Tom O'Brien said of the first half defensive performance. "We don't have a history with [Central Michigan] so they don't have a history with us. Everything was different by personnel than we thought. We adjusted to what we had to do by there personnel groupings and got ourselves in better defenses."

Coupled with much better execution, those better defenses had NC State's 2011 injury-riddled unit looking a bit like the 2010 edition in the final 30 minutes. The Wolfpack got in Radcliff's face, hit him, and picked off four passes, allowing the offense to extend a 4-point halftime lead to 21 midway through the fourth quarter.

Aside from one play -- a 77-yard Paris Cotton touchdown run that pulled Central Michigan within 14 points with 8 minutes left -- NC State's defense played as well as it has since the Wolfpack shutdown West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl in December of last year.

Without the 77-yard run, Central Michigan only mustered 96 second half yards and didn't convert any of its five third down plays.

O'Brien was adamant following the game when he talked about how important it was to get guys like linebacker Terrell Manning and defensive lineman Brian Slay back from injury. That was big, certainly, but for the players, the second half turnaround centered on one thing -- pressure.

NC State finished with just two sacks, but thanks to four quarterback hurries and an inconsistent pocket, Radcliff was never able to get in a rhythm in the second half. Without rhythm, Radcliff started making poor decisions. NC State's secondary took advantage.

For Manning and corner David Amerson, who hauled in three of the four interceptions combined, it all started with an improved pass rush.

"With defense, it starts up front with the trenches," Amerson said. "Without those guys we wouldn't be able to do anything. Not letting the quarterback just sit back there being comfortable really helped us out in the secondary and it paid off."

For Manning, who helped create that pressure on more than one occasion in the second half, the ability to create pressure made NC State more confident on third down and overall, allowing the Wolfpack to play faster, something it hasn't had a chance to do much in 2011.

"We had a lot of confidence. Our defensive line had a great game in the second half and it translated to the linebackers and we started playing well and the coverage picked up too," he said. "We take it from one level to the next."

Following a bye week that looks as perfectly placed as Saturday's halftime break, NC State heads into the meat of its ACC schedule. If more players can return from injury and stay healthy throughout the second half of the season, perhaps NC State's second half performance against the Chippewas was a bit of a preview.

"Hopefully we'll get some guys back and be able to make a run at this," O'Brien said.

Based on what he saw, safety Brandan Bishop -- who forced a key fumble late in the first half -- thinks NC State can make a run.

. "We're going to build off the momentum from this game and hopefully get guys back healthy and you never know in the ACC," he said. "We put a couple of good weeks together back to back and just try to take it one game at a time. We can compete against anybody."


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