Pass Blocking: After back-to-back weeks of allowing Daniel Evans to take a beating, NC State's offensive line did an outstanding job of giving him time against Georgia Tech.
Facing the league's top pass-rushing defense, Evans for the most part was able to sit back and disect Tech's zone-blitzing scheme.
He attempted a career-high 53 passes, and although he was hit on a few occasions, Tech registered just one sack after entering the game with the most of any ACC team.
What makes blocking Georgia Tech so tough is their complicated scheme. Defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta is a master at creating confusion, as he brings pressure from different angles all night long looking to create opportunities for defenders to get a free run at the quarterback. It looked as if State knew exactly where the blitzes were coming from on every play, as the few times Tech did get to Evans it was because of a missed block, not necessarily a blown assignment.
Kudos to the offensive line and coach Pat Meyer for being prepared for Tech's pressure.
Turnovers: After losing back-to-back games against Wake Forest and Maryland mainly due to turnovers, for the second straight game State limited turnovers. The Pack had just one against UVA and finished Saturday night with none versus Georgia Tech, an impressive stat given Tech's ability to force turnovers every week.
Forcing Turnovers, Easy Points: Over the previous five games, NC State's defense forced just two turnovers.
Because of this, State's offense generally had to drive long fields and didn't receive any easy points off turnovers. That all changed against Tech, starting with Pat Lowery's interception and return for a touchdown.
Lowery did a great job of reading Tech quarterback Reggie Ball and coming up with a huge play for the defense. His score pulled the Wolfpack within one point early in the second quarter.
Later in the game, safety Garland Heath also came up with a big interception. Like Lowery, Heath read Ball all the way and jumped the pass intended for Calvin Johnson. Heath's pick gave State favorable field position, and it led to a John Deraney field goal that gave the Wolfpack a 23-21 lead entering the 4th quarter.
State won the turnover battle, and although it was just with two turnovers, it is a nice start for the Wolfpack.
"Special" Special Teams: State was strong on special teams, and it all started with the explosive Darrell Blackman.
Blackman is known as one of the ACC's top special teams players, and you could tell Georgia Tech respected his abilities early as they kicked away from the Williamsport (PA) junior. However, Tech opened the second half by sending the kick Blackman's way, and he took it to the house after darting down the sideline and breaking two tackles a long the way for the 95-yard touchdown return.
Blackman's play pulled State back to within one, and it was followed by another field goal from John Deraney. The senior kicker made the most of State's inability to score in the redzone, as he drilled three field goals on the night. Deraney did miss two others, 49 and 53 yards respectively, after kicking into a stiff breeze on both tries.
Deraney was also solid as a punter. He punted seven times for 266 yards, an average of 38 yards per kick, as he pinned three kicks inside the 20 yard line and yielded just one return yard on his punts.
Evans Steps Up: Looking strictly at the numbers, you would think Daniel Evans had an average night.
Sure, he missed an open receiver a few times, but the fact is his numbers would have been even better had his receivers made more plays for him.
Evans threw for career-highs of 21 completions, 53 attempts (7th-most in school history), and 270 total yards. The 53 attempts is the most for NC State since Philip Rivers had 57 versus Arkansas State in 2000.
With that being said, it will probably be the passes he didn't complete and the added yards he didn't pick up that harmed State the most. There were at least eight drops on the night that could have went for big plays. 30-of-50 for 300+ yards and a touchdown would look even better.
Evans came out slinging it around and operating out of the no-huddle much of the night, and this was effective in helping limit Tech's pressure and substitition units. It was a fairly good night for Evans.
Lowery Loads Up: Talk about a huge outing. Senior linebacker Pat Lowery was all over the field. The Mocksville (NC) native tallied a game-high 16 tackles, two quarterback pressures, and an interception that he returned 28 yards for a touchdown.
What an effort from a player that leaves it all on the field every Saturday.
A Case Of The Drops: You can bet that the Wolfpack tailbacks, wideouts, and tight ends would love to have some plays back.
After catching everything against Virginia, State's pass-catchers had problems, real problems, against Tech. With an offense geared towards passing the football, State had at least eight drops on the night.
Tight end Anthony Hill finished the game with six catches for 72 yards, but he could have easily totaled double-digit catches had he caught the balls that hit him on the hands. It was a frustrating night for Hill, and you could see the pain on his face following the game. Not only did he drop catchable balls, he also had two penalties that put the Wolfpack behind schedule on offense.
Other players with key drops included tailback Andre Brown and new tight end/wide receiver Marcus Stone. These guys catch the eight or so passes that were dropped, and the Wolfpack's offense looks even more prolific. The Pack might just have been able to pull off the upset win.
Penalties, Penalties, Penalties: It has to start getting old to worry about if penalties are going to harm you each week, but that might be what State head coach Chuck Amato feels every Saturday. Even on Blackman's touchdown return and Lowery's interception and score, you've got to think Amato and company scanned the field first before celebrating.
That has been the troubling part of this season, and it continued against Tech as State totaled nine penalties for 93 yards with three yielding Georgia Tech first downs.
Two penalties in particular stick out. With Tech leading 7-3, State freshman defensive end Willie Young stopped Tashard Choice for a loss of two yards, setting up what would have been a third-and-six. However, after making the tackle, Young flexed his muscles for the crowd, and he was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct, a 15-yard penalty. The penalty not only negated the third down by giving Tech an automatic first down, but it also moved the ball inside State territory to the Wolfpack 43-yard line. On the very next play, Ball found Calvin Johnson open down the sideline for the touchdown, a 43-yarder that gave Tech a 14-3 advantage.
The second came late in the second quarter. On 2-and-8 from the State 24-yard line, Hill dropped a pass that would have been close to a first down. Tech defender Philip Wheeler got up in Hill's face after the play and the Pack tight end pushed Wheeler to the ground, picking up a deadball personal foul penalty that took State from 3rd-and-8 to 3rd-and-20. The penalty ended State's chances on the drive, and it forced another Deraney punt.
Those type of penalties continue to plague NC State.
Pick Your Poison:Tech has to have one of the toughest offenses to prepare for in the ACC, and the main reason is Calvin Johnson.
Johnson is the best player in college football. How can there be any doubt about this? How often does an opposing defense have to gear it's gameplan around a wide receiver... not a quarterback or tailback, but a wide receiver? That's what you have to do when you face Georgia Tech.
At 6-foot-5 and 235-pounds, the junior is a physical specimen at the position as he has the ability to make tough catches in double coverage, against man, or by finding a hole in a zone.
State started out the game by playing Johnson with just a single defender and not much safety help, choosing to keep a defender in the box to try and take away the running the game. Johnson lit them up for two first-half touchdowns and 100+ receiving yards.
At that point, State had to pull a safety out of the box and place him over the top of Johnson, wherever he lined up, and this opened up running lanes for Tashard Choice. Choice rushed 34 times for a game-high 164 yards, taking advantage of State now having just six or seven defenders in the box.
Late in the fourth quarter, with Choice starting to hit the defense for four+ yards a carry, the Pack brought a safety back off Johnson and what did Tech's Reggie Ball do? He hit Johnson down the sideline for a 33-yard gain.
Ball finished the game with four touchdowns, the most passing TDs given up by the Wolfpack defense since the 2004 Miami game (5 TDs). Coming into the game, the Pack had given up a league-low five TD passes on the year.
This is what makes Georgia Tech so tough to defend, and why they appear headed for Jacksonville. Pick your poison. Do you leave Johnson in man coverage or do you double him and open up chances for Choice, Ball, and James Johnson to make plays? You decide... either way, you're probably going to make the wrong choice.
Third-Down Conversions: State was solid on third down up in Charlottesville but was just 5-of-19 versus Tech. The interesting note was State had zero chances on third-and-short. Of the 19 third down plays, 14 were 3rd-and-long (10 passes and four runs). State was left with 3rd-and-middle five times and all five times the Wolfpack passed the football. To convert better on third down, State has to get more short-yardage chances.
Ground Game Grounded: Chuck Amato was concerned with his team's ability to run the football against Georgia Tech, as he made it clear following the game.
In his opening statement, Amato started off by stating he and his staff were confident that they could pass the football against Tech's defense, choosing to spread out the Yellow Jackets and let Evans complete short passes instead of running right at the aggressive defense.
Maybe it was because of the scheme State used on offense, or maybe Amato was simply right because State had no success rushing the football. The Wolfpack totaled 21 carries for 58 yards, an average of 2.8 yards per carry, with Andre Brown and Toney Baker finishing with 19 and 9 yards respectively.
Tech's linebackers do a great job of filling gaps in a hurry, and they would often plug running lanes before they were ever open.
This weekend the Pack will face a Clemson defense that resembles Georgia Tech's athletically. Will NC State try and establish the running game or continue to allow Evans to sit back and pass the football 50+ times? If you can't run the football, the question is probably an easy one.
Squandered Chances: After rarely getting good starting field position all season, the Pack offense has to be fuming over the missed chances to really seize control of this football game.
Three times the Wolfpack ventured into the redzone. One time Evans missed Hill open in the endzone as the pass sailed a little too high, another time he looked Hill's way again but the tight end couldn't haul in the catchable, yet difficult pass, and late in the third period it appeared the Pack was just looking to run the ball into Deraney range, assuring a solid field goal opportunity. All three drives ended with John Deraney field goals, and instead of a possible 21 points, State tallied just nine points offensively.
On two other drives, the Pack moved the football inside Tech's 35-yard line before stalling offensively and settling for two field goal attempts that Deraney missed.
That's a possible 27 offensive points that resulted in only nine for State's offense. You have to score touchdowns and generate the most points in order to defeat ranked teams like Georgia Tech.