NC State gave fans a glimpse of what's to come against the woefully outmatched Western Carolina Catamounts in its opener. But will the Pack really be that much faster and stronger than Wake Forest? Boston College was that much stronger and faster, and so was Wake's defeated Seattle Bowl opponent last season, Oregon. Power and speed are natural to compare against Big "EleveTen" power Ohio State, but Wake Forest is not the kind of team that outruns or overpowers its opponents. It simply outplays them.
While Wake coach Jim Grobe has taken his program to unprecedented heights, NC State coach Chuck Amato's squad has continued to rise as well. Grobe has done it seemingly with nothing but smoke and mirrors, instituting an innovative offense that utilizes a collection of run plays involving traps, pitches and misdirection to control possession and keep defenses off balance.
This year, the Deacons have a little more experience and confidence. However, Amato and Co. now have not only a little more film on Grobe's Deacons, but even more firepower added to an offense that led the ACC in scoring last year.
While NC State's defense may be younger and perhaps more vulnerable than last year, the skill positions of its offense are more seasoned. Nothing like a little dash of Tramain Hall to spice up an offense.
I suspect new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone was mostly sincere when he indicated that NC State's offense did not need to be tinkered with. But when Hall introduced himself with four straight plays for 37 yards and a touchdown, it was obvious that the complexion of the offense had changed. Each play was a short swing pass giving Hall a chance to make something happen in space. He lined up as a receiver and he also lined up in the backfield, and in the back of our head, many of us might have also been wondering, "Is he replacing T.A.?" The first play of State's second drive also began with a swing pass to Hall, but the next one answered that question, when big number 44 rushed up the middle for 12 quick yards. In fact, McLendon exploded so fast through the line that the crowd let out a collective "woah." He went on to grab two touchdowns of his own on the day (granted, there were a lot of touchdowns to be had).
The staff has made a point to utilize all of the team's depth on offense, and that poses a greater challenge for defenses this year. Not least of all will be that of Wake Forest, which was seventh in the league in the yards allowed last year.
The performance of Sterling Hicks (7 catches for 110 yards) and the early game appearances of sophomore Brian Clark and true freshman Lamart Barrett showed that the receiving corps may literally be played six deep, including All-ACC candidate Jericho Cotchery, Hall, and the yet-to-be-unveiled Roy Washington. Fred Span also received late playing time, and senior Andy Bertrand, one of the fastest players on the team, sat out with a minor injury. Needless to say, if there's one position where the Pack can afford to suffer multiple torn ACL's, it would be at wide receiver.
More notable might have been the return of Cotra Jackson, who looks to also figure prominently in the offense. He certainly displayed his form from two years ago, and gives the Pack another power runner in the backfield. Though former NC High School Player of the Year and junior Josh Brown doesn't look to benefit too much from Cotra's return, the Pack is now in no danger of needing to borrow a running back from the defense like last year.
How the defense will fair against Wake Forest might be a little more of a concern. The absence of Terrence Holt was noticeable against Western Carolina - without last year's quarterback on defense keeping everyone together, there seemed to be several breakdowns in the secondary. This year's loss of arguably the team's best cover corner, Marcus Hudson, may hurt the Pack more greatly than expected if A.J. Davis or Dovonte Edwards can't handle man coverage in nickel packages. Yes, most of the team's youth resides on the defensive line, and much attention has been drawn to the fact that State didn't get one sack last week. But it didn't grab any interceptions against a greatly inferior team, either.
Certainly some credit should be given to the WCU's senior quarterback, Greg Gaither, who made his share of tough completions in traffic. But if you were at the game, you saw State's defense put plenty pressure on the quarterback and keep the running game almost non-existant, holding the Catamounts to only 43 rushing yards. The defensive line is inexperienced, but players of the caliber of Mario Williams and Manny Lawson may very well have already improved it from last year. The true test will come this week, against a Wake squad that amazingly led the league in both rushing yards per game last year.
Will the Pack be able to again shut down Wake's difficult-to-diagnose offense? Will Wake's chop blocks fail to knock at least three linemen out of the game and its sophomore quarterback, Cory Randolph, be forced to complete more than 13 passes? Or will Wake move upfield with the same ease it has been doing since it last played the Pack? If Rivers and crew are firing on all cylinders, it may not matter, but Saturday, the new-look Pack will get its first real chance to see what it's made of this year. Wake Forest appears to already have a good idea.