After a gut-wrenching last second loss to UNC and a no-show defeat at the hands of Virginia, NC State entered Saturday's game against Wake Forest in dire need of a win. The Pack responded with its most complete effort of the year, routing the Deacs 37-6. Pack Pride recaps State's sixth win of the season.
The Bottom Line
The offense came out firing on all cylinders. Defensively, NC State stifled Wake Forest's offensive attack all day. The Pack even had its best showing of the year on special teams with several impressive returns and solid kick coverage all day. State limited mistakes and the end result was the most complete game the Wolfpack has played all year. Headed into the game, no one knew how the Pack would respond after the previous two weeks but to State's credit, they came out with energy and focus and it showed from the opening kickoff.
Flipping the Script
The first quarter has been NC State's undoing in all four losses this season so getting off to a fast start had to be at the very top of the coaching staff's agenda. It was mission accomplished on Saturday.
From the opening kickoff State looked inspired. After holding the Deacs to a three and out on their first drive, the Pack immediately drove to the Wake Forest 19 yard line before Tobais Palmer was stripped. However, instead of allowing the turnover to snowball into something negative, State responded with a Brandan Bishop interception a few plays later that set the Pack up on the Deac's 31 yard line. In just two plays State scored and the route was on.
In all, State put up 17 in the first quarter while shutting out Wake Forest and holding them to just 56 yards, three first downs, three punts and one turnover on four possessions.
Stat(s) of the Game There were two that really jumped out. Wake Forest was able to convert on just 2 of 17 third down attempts. The Pack forced the Deacs into third and long all day and much of that was due to Wake's inability to generate anything on the ground.
The Wolfpack has been good with time of possession all year but on Saturday they totally dominated Wake Forest in this category. The Pack tallied 36 minutes to Wake Forest's 24 minutes. State also had nearly a third more offensive plays, beating the Deacs 94 to 63. You're not going to lose very many games when you run 94 offensive plays.
Special Teams Plays Lights Out
NC State's special teams were clicking on all cylinders Saturday and collectively, this very well may have been the Pack's best effort under Tom O'Brien and special team's coach Jerry Petercuskie.
Tobais Palmer ripped off a 101 yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Rashard Smith returned seven punts for 78 yards including a scintillating 28 yard carry where he eluded several Wake Forest defenders.
K Niklas Sade hit on 3 of 5 field goals including a 49-yarder with his only misses coming from 50+ yards. State's kickoff coverage team limited Wake Forest to just 18 yards per return on four attempts while P Wil Baumann averaged right at 40 yards per punt with the Deacs getting no punt return yardage.
Play of the Game
While NC State held a solid 17-6 halftime lead, it was Tobais Palmer's 101 yard kickoff return to open the second half that put the final nail in the Deac's coffin. State opened up a huge running lane to the left side which left Palmer nothing to do but set up the kicker to miss. It appeared that Palmer went untouched on the play and any hopes Wake Forest had of a second half comeback all but disappeared in the first 11 seconds of the second half.
Player of the Game
There were several players that performed well. Shadrach Thornton's 110 rushing yards were a huge boost for the NC State offense. Tobais Palmer totaled 189 all purpose yards for his best game of the season. Art Norman was very active on defense with four tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. However, we have to give the nod to Dontae Johnson. He was tasked with shadowing Wake Forest's go-to guy WR Michael Campanaro. For the most part, so goes Campanaro, so goes Wake Forest. Johnson limited Campanaro to five catches for 14 yards with his longest reception being just six yards. Campanaro was blanketed all day and the Deacs could never find a way to get him involved in the offense. With their main offensive weapon neutralized, Wake Forest was left with virtually nothing else to turn to other than one trick play that led to their sole touchdown of the day.
State Didn't Beat Itself
The Pack did have two turnovers. The Tobais Palmer fumble could have been big but the State defense responded by creating a turnover of its own on Wake Forest's subsequent drive. Mike Glennon's interception basically equated to a 38 yard punt with no return. The Pack had just three penalties for 15 yards and none played a factor in the game. State did have a few drops but those were primarily by TE Asa Watson and he atoned for that by making a tough touchdown grab.
When State has lost this year it's typically been because they were their own worst enemy. When they've limited mistakes or just had a normal game's worth of errors, they've been tough to beat or at least given themselves a decent shot at winning. The key now is to replicate the effort against Clemson and Boston College.
Running Game Gives State Balance
Headed in we said a key was going to be State's ability to run the football. The Wolfpack's running backs amassed 184 yards on the ground and that's a number State can win with. Shadrach Thornton gave the Pack some burst at the position. Andrew Wallace gave a solid effort at right guard in his first extensive action of the year. State's effort on the ground took some pressure off of Glennon and gave him manageable down and distance situations to convert. If the Pack can continue this, they'll be a tough out headed forward.
Turning the Page
Now NC State heads to Clemson where they'll likely be a decided underdog. As has been the case all year, before the Pack can worry about the Tigers, they'll first need to worry about the team that gets off the bus.
State has been up and down and they've only been consistent in their inconsistency. If they limit mental miscues the Pack can be a difficult team to beat. When they're not focused they look something more akin to the Keystone cops.
Maybe it's too much to expect State to go down to Death Valley and win but I think most Wolfpack fans would really like to see a team that competes, plays smart and gives itself a chance for a victory.
You have to give the coaching staff and players credit for righting the ship. Now we'll see if they can string together two in a row.