NC State Defense vs. UConn Offense
SHUT DOWN MCCOMBS
Priority No. 1 for NC State has to be stopping UConn tailback Lyle McCombs. A lot of folks don't know about McCombs, especially in the ACC region, but he is coming off a breakout freshman campaign where he was tabbed a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers Association and a second-team All-BIG EAST pick.
McCombs finished the 2011 season with 1,151 rushing yards and seven scores, including six games where he rushed for 100+ yards.
At 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds he isn't the biggest back, but he is durable, explosive, and elusive in space. He can be used in a variety of ways and is also dangerous catching the ball out of the backfield.
A key to his success has been their willingness to feed McCombs the football. In the opener against UMass, where he rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown, he recorded 23 carries. Add in two catches for 23 yards and he finished the game with 25 touches.
In 2011 McCombs had just one game where he totaled less than 18 carries and he had 20+ carries in 10 of UConn's 12 contests. Even down big, the Huskies will continue to get McCombs work, which shows that they believe he is their go-to weapon.
It's critical for NC State to shut down McCombs. He's going to be the workhorse for UConn, who has a new starter at quarterback and some questions in the passing game. If the Wolfpack can stop No. 43 it will increase their chances of leaving Hartford with a win.
LIMIT BIG PLAYS AND THE WILDCAT
UConn hasn't traditionally been a big-play team and State must make sure that trend continues on Saturday. The Wolfpack has to force the Huskies march up the field, snapping the ball and trying to make plays.
The big play was a killer for State in the opener, as three of Tennessee's touchdowns came on plays of 40+ yards.
The Huskies finished last in the Big East in total offense, averaging only 313 yards per game, and are breaking in a new quarterback in JC transfer Chandler Whitmer. With question marks offensively, NC State can't let UConn have any cheap scores through big plays, turnovers or on special teams.
A key will be how much UConn looks to bring in quarterback Scott McCummings to run the "Wildcat." An explosive athlete, McCummings completed just 5-of-10 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the package last season, but he rushed another 74 times for 285 yards and five scores. He had games against Syracuse and Rutgers where he totaled 14 and 10 carries respectively... if the Wildcat is working UConn will stay with it until NC State proves they can defend it.
State is going to have to prevent big plays and make UConn earn everything. Coach O'Brien was concerned all week with his inexperienced linebackers potentially having to defend the Wildcat, and he should be.
WIN THE TURNOVER BATTLE
UConn has had turnover issues already this year, losing the ball three times in their opener, but they were able to escape due to a stingy defense and scores on special teams (blocked punt) and defense (interception).
Given State's ability to turn over teams last year, this has to be an area the Wolfpack defense exploits. Fumbles are hard to predict, but interceptions can be forced and a way to do that is making a team one-dimensional.
Look for State to try and put UConn in obvious passing situations by stuffing the run early. Whitmer completed 15-of-25 passes against UMass, but State's defense should be a tougher test for him. If he's forced to throw it opens the door for the Wolfpack's ball-hawking secondary to create some turnovers.
UConn will try to run the football, and they are going to try and stay on schedule offensively. They do NOT want to pass the football often. They want to control the game by pounding away at State's defensive front with McCombs and McCummings.
However, when they do have to pass, State must be able to pressure Whitmer. They have to apply more pressure than they did last week against Tennessee's Tyler Bray, who had all day to make plays in the pocket.
If NC State is going to win they are going to have to win the turnover battle, and that starts by stuffing the run and making UConn a passing team.