Pack Pride's James Henderson, Steve Williams, Rob McLamb, and Bryant Carson answer several critical questions facing NC State heading into Saturday's matchup with Clemson.
NC State has already played in a rowdy environment at East Carolina, but Clemson is a different animal when you factor in the defensive talent. What is the biggest key of the game for the Wolfpack offense?
James Henderson: Time of possession. NC State wants to play fast under Eli Drinkwitz, but I think in this game State should look to grind out drives and shorten the game. It won't be easy because Clemson's defense is stout, but short, quick offensive possessions is scary against Clemson because it means more possessions for the Tigers.
Steve Williams: State has to protect the football. Clemson is way too good to give them freebies. The Pack has to hold onto to the football and QB Ryan Finley has to make smart decisions. Punting the football isn't the worst thing but giving Clemson a short field will create a quick path to getting blown out.
Rob McLamb: The play of the NC State offensive line will be critical. Clemson's defensive front has been stellar so far in 2016. The Tigers defense as a whole is much improved over last season.
Bryant Carson: Sustained drives. Clemson’s offense is going to score—just ask Alabama last season—no getting around that. The best way for State to stay in this thing, in my opinion, is to play ‘keep away’ on offense and try to eat the clock, wear the defense and ultimately shorten the game for themselves. 3-and-outs will yield a similar result to 2014 when Clemson probably could have won the game by triple digits if they had wanted to.
The Tigers use a lot of man, press coverage... how would you look to attack the Tiger defense?
James Henderson: Run the football, but I think State needs to use multiple formations, shifts, and bunch packages to create confusion. Also, I think you'll see more drag routes and wheel routes that could take get Clemson's linebackers in positive situations for the Wolfpack.
Ideally NC State will be able to run the ball, but if they can't State has to mix up the route combinations to try and create some busted coverages.
Steve Williams: Run the football. Send the receivers downfield and run the football. Somehow you've got to get Clemson's safeties involved to stop the run game so you can get some space to throw the football. It all sounds good on paper but talking about it and executing are two different things. If State can't run the football, they're going to have a tough time offensively.
Rob McLamb: Slants and other type of quick hitters like tunnel routes may be a good base to build off of. If there is some success in that area, and the offensive line is keeping Clemson out of the backfield, then NC State could run wheel curls or wheel go routes with the slots.
Bryant Carson: Do what you do…State has to be who they are and not lose their heads out there trying to overthink everything they’re doing. You know what has worked and what hasn’t to-date so you’ve got to lean on those strengths and stay away from those weaknesses—which is true every week but particularly in a hostile environment against probably the best defense you’ll see all season. State moved the ball and scored on Clemson’s D last year and while Clemson’s D has improved since then…so has State’s O.
Strategically, do you think NC State should play aggressive and look to hit chunk plays or would you try and ground out a running attack and shorten the game, if possible?
James Henderson: I think State has to be aggressive, but ideally they shorten the game. Run the football, sustain drives, control the clock.
With that being said, NC State will have to score points... if that means they'll need explosive plays, so be it.
Steve Williams: Again, I'd try to run the football and control the clock. State cannot get into a track meet with the Tigers. That's exactly what they want to do. The Pack has to put together consistent drives that eat up clock and put points on the board. That doesn't mean you don't take a shot downfield because I think you have to at some point but a ball control offense is State's best strategy in my opinion.
Rob McLamb: Probably a little of both. You have to take home run swings or the offense will struggle. That said, the objective should be controlling the tempo and keeping Clemson off the field is a good idea.
Bryant Carson: I think they’ll have to prove to Clemson that they can stand up to their DL and protect Finley long enough to complete some passes—if they can do that the run could open up and from that point on I’d lean on Dayes/Samuels/Hines/Gallaspy to carry the load, wear the D and chew the clock.
Pick one player who you feel needs to step up on the offensive side of the ball for NC State?
James Henderson: Ryan Finley. He is the engine of the offense . I think Clemson will look to load the box and take out Matt Dayes. Finley and the passing game will need to be able to make plays.
Steve Williams: Matt Dayes. He's obviously been the focal point of the offense and asking him to "step up" might not be the right term to use but if State's going to have a legitimate shot, Dayes has to have a big game.
Rob McLamb: Any offensive lineman. This is the biggest challenge that group has faced so far this season.
Bryant Carson: I’m going to go with Joe Scelfo. Death Valley is going to be berserk so staying calm and poised and delivering the snap will be vital. Also, Scelfo is going to have to deal with big Dex Lawrence coming right down the pipe snap after snap.
Clemson has one of the best offenses in the country with Deshaun Watson at the helm. What would be your gameplan defensively to defend the Tigers?
James Henderson: I would play coverage... keep my safeties back to limit explosive vertical passing plays and force the Tigers to sustain drives. Clemson can run the football, and if I'm NC State that is how I'm going to make Clemson beat me. They'll need to run the football, pick up first downs, and essentially work up the field. Then if I can get the Tigers into the redzone, look to force field goals.
What do I think will happen? I think you'll see NC State look to do that but also mix it up at times and take some chances.
Steve Williams: I'm sure a lot of State fans don't want to hear it but to me it's a classic situation where you play to keep everything in front of you. You work to prevent the big play and hope that somewhere along the way, Clemson stumbles whether it be a blown assignment, penalty or turnover. I do think the Pack needs to get aggressive inside the red zone once the field has shrunk.
Rob McLamb: A team that throws the ball can make big plays but as NC State legend Anthony Barbour often says, "If you throw that ball around one thing can go right but two things can go wrong."
Clemson throwing the ball 40-50 times would likely mean NC State is moving the ball on offense. Will the Tigers make plays? Probably, but NC State will have the chance to make some as well. The Wolfpack won't need to make every stop, just enough stops.
Bryant Carson: This is a ‘pick your poison’ type situation so it’s likely that whatever you concentrate on stopping will cost you somewhere else. However, I think State’s strength continues to be the DL and stopping the run so if you’re going to put a defensive piece out on an island then I’d pick the DL. Let them do the best they can, with some occasional help/blitzes, to stop the run and get some pressure while using everyone else to clog passing lanes and stall Watson. Try not to give up easy stuff way down field.
What is the biggest concern for NC State's defense?
James Henderson: Deshaun Watson. He has obliterated NC State's defense the last two years and is one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
However, I think State is eager for this challenge. It will be a great opportunity to see where the defense is at midway through the season.
Steve Williams: Everything. To me everything is a concern- running game, short passing, vertical passing game, misdirection. Clemson puts so much pressure on a defense because of their skill players. You have to be disciplined but not complacent, patient but aggressive at the same time.
Rob McLamb: Clemson cannot be allowed to explode early control the tempo. The Wolfpack have to make the Tigers almost exclusively a passing team, and that will require NC State being in the contest late or putting Clemson in a position where they have to chase the game.
Bryant Carson: So, so much. This is probably best summed up by saying that—and this is just my guess—of Clemson’s 2-deep on offense, consisting of 22 players, that anywhere from 11-15 of them will end up in the NFL.
Pick one player who you feel needs to step up on the defensive side of the ball.
James Henderson: Jerod Fernandez. NC State has to plug holes and limit Wayne Gallman in the running back... often that comes down to great play from the defensive tackles and middle linebacker.
Steve Williams: This is really tough because to beat Clemson I think all eleven players on defense will have to step up. Of the group I think one of the linebackers has to have the game of his career. They've been the weak link at times defending the pass and Clemson will eat that up if the Pack doesn't show it can be consistently effective.
Rob McLamb: Airius Moore. The linebackers as a group have a big task. If the battle of the lines is a wash then they have to close the deal whatever Clemson's offensive approach ends of being.
Bryant Carson: Either CB. Tocho and Stevens are going to be tested…tested deep…often…with a QB that is accurate downfield and WRs that will come down with the ball.
Prediction time... let's have it. What do you think happens on the field?
James Henderson: Tough setup for NC State. The Wolfpack is coming off an emotional home victory and heading on the road to face a superior opponent. A strong performance would be really impressive to me.
Clemson, arguably one of the top two or three programs in the country, takes care of business at home.
Steve Williams: Man, I hate picking against NC State but if I'm being objective I have to go with Clemson.
Rob McLamb: Clemson 38, NC State 21.
Bryant Carson: I think this may be Dave Doeren’s most complete team at NCSU yet. This is an older, more experienced group—most of which went down there in 2014 and got absolutely embarrassed. Meanwhile, Clemson played for a National Championship last year and may be even better this year. So…I think State will have the ability to stay with Clemson for a while and may even be able to beat the 17 point spread but, in the end, Clemson will just be too much for the Pack. Clemson wins 45-31.