OVERALL Defensive Effort: NC State played well enough defensively to win the football game. There is no doubt about that.
Anytime you can go on the road and hold a team to just 14 points, you have to feel good about your chances to win. The Pack's defense played lights out for much of the day, but it wasn't rewarded with the victory.
Virginia totaled 247 yards of total offense, with 150 coming on its two scoring drives that consisted of 16 plays. For the rest of the game, the Wolfpack's defense held the Cavaliers to just 97 yards on 43 plays, an average of 2.26 yards per play. However in the game of football every play and every drive counts, and the two possessions that led to UVA's 14 points came back to haunt the Pack in the end.
With that being said, if the Wolfpack defense can continue to hold teams to 14 points or less on the scoreboard, at some point you have to think the ball will bounce their way and State can come away with a victory.
Turnovers: After having turnovers at crucial times of the previous two games, NC State had just one turnover against UVA. Granted it came on the final drive when Daniel Evans threw into triple coverage, but at that point the redshirt sophomore was just trying to make a play.
The Pack did a much better job of handling the football. There were no fumbles and the receivers and backs did a solid job of protecting the football. Just one turnover certainly isn't a bad output.
No-Huddle Offense: NC State probably had its best success on offense when it utilized a no-huddle offense.
Both the scoring drive and the late drive in the first-half that ended with a missed field goal came about with Evans operating out of a no-huddle offense. Evans completed 21-of-35 passes for 220 yards and a touchdown, the yardage total was a career high as he looked good passing the football.
Evans admitted following the game that he is more comfortable running a no-huddle offense, and having your quarterback comfortable is a must, but the no-huddle has both positives and negatives.
Using a no-huddle can allow an offense to get into a rhythm, control the tempo, and keep the opposing defense from customizing personnel, schemes, and alignments based on down and distance. The quarterback normally will receive a couple of plays from the sideline and determine what to call based on the formation of the defense. Evans is obviously comfortable with doing this.
However, it is often difficult to run the no-huddle on the road, and it can also wear down an offensive line just as easily as a defense. It also limits personnel on offense, as you typical run out of the same groupings. The main problem is it is difficult to stay balanced on offense (no-huddle is normally pass-heavy) and run the football effectively.
Granted, NC State has to make sure Evans is comfortable, and he certainly looked that way when using the no-huddle on Saturday. However, maybe it's best to continue to use it as a change of pace right now because you certainly don't want to sacrifice what could be a strong ground game.
Third-Down Defense: The Wolfpack's defense was outstanding on third down. The Pack limited UVA to just 2-of-12 conversions on third down, and forced five three-and-outs.
Wideouts Step Up: NC State's wide receivers and tight end Anthony Hill made several big plays on Saturday.
Leading the way was Hill, John Dunlap and Darrell Blackman, as there were no noticeable drops on the day and all three made several big-time catches while taking hits from UVA defenders.
Hill finished the day with six catches for 41 yards, as the junior tight end remains the Wolfpack's top receiver, and Blackman added four catches for 44 yards, including a 24-yarder on fourth down on the Wolfpack's scoring drive.
The biggest playmaker was Dunlap, and he continues to be the main target for Evans, as he came alive late in the game. After catching the first pass of the day, a 27-yarder, Dunlap was quiet until making a spectacular leaping catch down the sideline midway through the fourth quarter. He followed that 28-yard reception with a 17-yard catch on a square-in route across the middle of the field that resulted in another first down. Later in the drive on third-and-goal, Dunlap caught an 8-yard touchdown pass in the back of the endzone that tie the game at 7.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior is becoming a go-to player, and his emergence with the development of Hill, Blackman, and some of the other young receivers has been a pleasant surprise all season.
Assignment Football: In watching State's defense, you could tell they were well-prepared for UVA's simple yet effective offense.
Virginia's offensive system is based around an athletic offensive line. The Cavs love to pull their linemen and/or simply get them out in space to block smaller defenders, and the Wolfpack seemed to know exactly what UVA was doing much of the day.
The majority of the time, you can expect UVA to run a stretch play, a draw, a screen, or a QB bootleg, and then sprinkle in passes to the tight ends or wide receivers. NC State seemed to know that and the defenders played their assignments well. That is why, for the most part, they were successful.
However, the game comes down to execution and sometimes even if you know a play is coming that doesn't mean you can stop it if the offense is better on that play. On two drives and 16 plays, Virginia was just that offensively.
Offensive Line Play: Sometimes you need to look past the numbers.
Sure, NC State tallied 290 yards of total offense and passed for 220. The offensive line yielded just two sacks, but that doesn't tell the whole story. Evans was chased all day, and the Pack's vaunted rushing attack was stuffed, as Brown and Baker could find no running room.
UVA's young defensive front came out and did a great job of applying pressure on what should be an experienced offensive line, a line that saw two starters pulled very early.
The line played better when Meares Green and Luke Lathan were inserted. Maybe those two guys should be rewarded with a start next week against Georgia Tech.
It was another subpar effort from an offensive line that looked to be developing into one of the best in the conference earlier this season. After back-to-back weeks of ineffective play, it could be time to shake things up personnel-wise.
Penalties, Penalties, Penalties: Each week, you know penalties will show up in this feature, and that might be the problem itself. Most of the time, it tends to show up under "BAD" and that is the case again this week as the Wolfpack recorded nine penalties for 53 yards.
Five of those penalties came from the Wolfpack's three senior offensive linemen, and that has to be a concern for the Wolfpack coaches. This team isn't good enough to win games with the offense starting in first-and-long or having first downs nullified because of penalties.
The penalties have been a problem all season. NC State has committed nine or more penalties in four of its five losses this season. It is averaging 5.3 penalties a game in the three wins and 8.4 penalties in the five losses.
Forcing Any Turnovers? Looking for a crazy stat? Over the past five games, NC State is 2-3 with three straight losses.
In 20 quarters, the Wolfpack's defense has forced just two turnovers. In the last three games, or 12 quarters, the Wolfpack's defense has forced ZERO turnovers.
What does this mean? Well, you know NC State's not getting any points off turnovers. You can't get any easy scores from the defense if you can't even force turnovers. Also, it puts a young offense at a disadvantage as the offense is always being put into a situation where they have to drive long distances because they are never getting any favorable field position. It's tough to ask a young offense to put points on the board when they have to consistently go 60+ yards on every possession.
Sure, it's great for the Pack's defense that they held UVA to 14 points. However, at some point they MUST start forcing some turnovers or getting easy scores to help out the offensive side of the ball. It all works together. A great defense can really help an offense and vice versa.
Ground Game Grounded: NC State's tailbacks rushed for just 72 yards on 22 carries, as UVA did a great job of shutting down the run. Sure, the Wolfpack's carry total seems low, but that was because late in the game they had to start looking to pass more after falling behind.
The Pack just couldn't get it going on the ground. UVA's 3-4 scheme presented problems as the defenders filled gaps well and tackled Baker and Brown when they had to.
It won't get any easier for the Wolfpack next week as Georgia Tech and defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta come to Raleigh.
No Identity: Watch teams across college football and you generally know what they are going to do on offense... you get a feel for their offensive philosophy.
Wake Forest is going to run the ball out of a spread formation, using misdirection, reverses, and counters... but you can count on them to continue running the football. BC is going to play smashmouth football and come at you with playaction. UVA, as mentioned early, will use their athletic offensive line to run stretches, screens, and bootleg leads. Clemson is going to pound away with a strong offensive line and C.J. Spiller and James Davis. The question is, what is NC State's identity?
Realistically, can that offensive unit practice sufficiently ALL of those different formations or packages in practice and be expected to operate flawlessly without mistakes on Saturdays? College football isn't the NFL. You don't get to practice plays eight hours a day and work on various formations throughout the week because the NCAA limits practice time. This could be an underlying factor in NC State's consistent problems with missed assignments, illegal formations, and illegal shifts on offense.
NC State needs to find that identity. They need to find out what they really want to do on offense and base everything else off of it. Do they want to go to a no-huddle offense with Daniel Evans and keep him comfortable while using an emerging group of wideouts? Do they want to run, run, and run the ball with their two tailbacks like Clemson does each week?
Whatever it is, they need to find it because as the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and maybe there just isn't enough time to practice and perfect everything NC State is currently doing on offense.
Offense Starts Slow: NC State has to find a way to start putting points on the board earlier in the game.
For the second straight week, the Wolfpack was held scoreless in the first half. It was the first time since the 14-0 loss to Baylor on September 23, 1995 that NC State was held scoreless through three quarters. The seven points was the Wolfpack's lowest point total since a 23-6 loss to East Carolina on November 20, 1999.
The problem is much more than just this past weekend's loss. With Virginia's first quarter touchdown, NC State has now been outscored 26-3 in the opening quarter over the last seven games. The Wolfpack has only 12 points al lseason in the first quarter with nine against Appalachian State and three against Boston College. When you mix the offensive woes with the fact that NC State has allowed a score in the first quarter in six of the eight games (only Maryland and Akron were held scoreless), you see why the Wolfpack is always playing from behind.
It's a culmination of things, but this team has to play with the lead to be successful.
Squandered Chances, Late-Season Slide: This loss is particularly painful because of the optimism that existed in Raleigh just three weeks ago.
Checking in at 3-2 and 2-0 in the conference following back-to-back home wins over BC and FSU, the Wolfpack entered a three-game stretch with Wake Forest, Maryland, and Virginia. All three games were certainly viewed as winnable, and it looked likely that at minimum the Pack should exit with two wins.
Three weeks later and the Pack is now reeling after three straight losses. At 3-5 and 2-3 in league play, games against ranked Georgia Tech and Clemson are on deck, and the Pack has to win at least one of those games and beat rivals North Carolina and ECU (never easy) just to get bowl eligible.
At this point and based on everything that has occured this season, does that look possible?