Defense Answered Some Questions
A lot of folks have questioned NC State's back seven, but the unit played well in the opener. They really only allowed one big play, the third down conversion to Moe Brown (33 yards) late in the fourth quarter, and generally made the plays asked of them.
USC quarterback Stephen Garcia wasn't asked to do too much, completing 13-of-22 passes for under 150 yards with most being short timing routes. When USC did try to open it up in the second half (by going 4-5 wideouts), NC State defended it well and didn't give Garcia time to be effective.
The main positive for NC State was the back seven didn't allow any big, busted plays, and a bunch of young defenders gained quality experience.
Whether you say USC's offense isn't very good or NC State's defense is going to be great, giving up just seven points to an SEC team in the opener is a positive for the Pack.
Bend, Don't Break
Tip your cap to the Wolfpack defense. They were put in tough situations on several occasions and ended up stopping the USC offense each time but one.
LB Audie Cole blows up USC's
Brian Maddox in the backfield.
That one proved to be pivotal. On NC State's first offensive play of the year, tailback Toney Baker fumbled and USC recovered at the Wolfpack's 14-yard line. Four plays later the Gamecocks took it in for their only score of the night.
Six minutes into the game, USC scored their only points. The Wolfpack defense kept them out of the endzone and from putting points on the scoreboard the final 54 minutes.
South Carolina's average starting field position was its own 39-yard line. NC State's starting field position was its own 22-yard line. Despite the good field position, NC State was able to effectively stall out USC's drives and keep the Wolfpack in the game.
What really stood out was how athletic NC State's defense looked. The defenders swarmed to the football and if the first guy missed the tackle another was there waiting to get in a hit. O'Brien stated several times during the fall that he felt it was an athletic bunch and that proved to be the case.
Ruiz Bounces Back
It didn't start off well for redshirt junior punter Jeff Ruiz, but he did what you hope players do and that's respond to adversity by stepping up his play.
Ruiz had his first punt at NC State blocked by South Carolina's Devin Taylor, giving the Gamecocks good field position. However, he responded by booming a couple of other kicks while also looking comfortable on a few rugby-style, rollout punts designed to counter USC's pressure up the middle.
He had a 52-yarder and pinned USC inside its own 20-yard line on another. Overall he had six punts for 236 yards (39.3)... a very good outing when you also consider he angled his punts well and had enough hangtime to limit USC's explosive punt returners to just 19 return yards.
Youngsters Stand Out
The biggest positive for NC State might have been the play the Wolfpack received from younger plays thrust into critical roles.
It started early when redshirt sophomore Audie Cole, making his first college start, blew up USC tailback Brian Maddox in the backfield for a seven-yard loss on the first possession of the game. Cole totaled 4 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and .5 sacks on the night from his outside linebacker position. At 6'5 and 240 pounds he showed very good quickness and athleticism, and he looked extremely comfortable as a blitzer.
We mentioned earlier how well the secondary played and a big reason was the contributions received from a trio of freshmen. True freshman Rashard Smith came in on nickel situations and his explosiveness jumps out at you. He looked to be a solid tackler, totaling four tackles, and added a sack on a blitz.
True freshman Rashard Smith
was one of the Pack's top
performers on Thursday night.
Smith had another potentially game-changing play late in the fourth when he returned a punt 31 yards, nearly taking it to the house before being tackled to the ground by his helmet. The most impressive thing about Smith is how comfortable he looked in all situations. He didn't seem phased at all by the environment and looked like a natural in all aspects. Smith has a lot of upside and look for him to receive more and more playing over the next few weeks.
Redshirt freshmen C.J. Wilson and Earl Wolff also performed admirably. As a starter, Wilson totaled two tackles and didn't get beat all night. Wolff was impressive. In limited snaps, he recorded eight tackles from his safety position with a couple of them preventing long gains. He is another guy who could work his way onto the field if he continues to make plays.
Fewer freshmen and inexperienced players received snaps offensively, but redshirt freshman R.J. Mattes and true freshman James Washington stood out. While we've yet to fully breakdown the game film, Mattes might have played the best among Pack offensive linemen, as we rarely remember the inside tackles defeating him. He also didn't have any penalties and was never really exposed. Mattes has the tools to be a special player.
Washington played three snaps and totaled three carries for 16 yards. The true freshman showed explosiveness and shiftiness that the Pack upperclassmen may not have and he could prove to be a valuable change-of-pace back for the Wolfpack. Even more impressive is the fact that Washington appears to have beaten out junior Curtis Underwood and redshirt freshman Brandon Barnes for the No. 3 tailback spot.
Lemon Steps Up
You have to feel good for Michael Lemon. Given a second chance, and he was quick to point out after the game how grateful he is for it, Lemon arrived in Raleigh a couple of weeks ago and has worked his way onto the two-deep.
When in the game, he was effective. Lemon recorded two tackles from his defensive end position and made a great play in the third quarter when he had a leaping interception on a zone blitz. He executed his assignment perfectly, as he faked the rush then backed out into a passing lane. Garcia tried to get the ball over the top of Lemon, but he showed good athleticism to record the pick.
The junior college transfer can only improve as he becomes more comfortable with the Wolfpack's scheme, and he certainly flashed some upside in the opener.
From the opening snap NC State's offense just looked out of sync and a tad off for much of the night. With the fumble on the first play, to the occasional off-line snaps, to the dropped, catchable balls, it all added up to a horrible night for a unit expected to be the strength of the team.
The numbers say it all. 133 total yards. 74 passing yards. 59 rushing yards. 1.9 yards per rush. 5-of-14 on 3rd-down conversions.
NC State could never
get going offensively.
When Wilson was flushed from the pocket USC had a defender there and quickly attacked him which forced Wilson to make a decision sooner than he maybe would have liked. USC also had good depth on their drops at linebacker and contested a lot of passes. Playing with an inexperienced secondary, they didn't have many, if any, glaring, blown assignments and overall their defense played extremely well. They made plays all night long.
With that being said, NC State has to execute better. It comes down to fundamentals of blocking and catching. They must be better in those areas.
The positive for NC State is they really can't play any worse offensively and still had a chance to win the game in the final minutes. Offensively, they have the upside to be potent as they showed last year with essentially the same skill position players. They must come out and find a rhythm next Saturday.
Blocking, Blocking, Blocking
This has to be the biggest area of concern for the Wolfpack. South Carolina's defensive line manhandled NC State's line, totaling six sacks and holding the Pack to just 1.9 yards per carry.
On the first play of the game there was a missed assignment that led to Baker being hit in the backfield. Early in the game starting left tackle Jake Vermiglio went down with a leg injury, forcing redshirt freshman Andrew Wallace into the lineup at left guard and pushing starting left guard Julian Williams out to the tackle.
Whether those changes prompted the issues we'll never know, but the fact is NC State has to improve up front and head coach Tom O'Brien said the same following the game.
"It's not where we have to be up front so we have to reassess those positions in the next week and try to get better," said O'Brien.
Andy Barbee played some at left guard (after reportedly working mainly at center and right guard all fall) and was beaten badly on a couple of plays. Tackles Julian Williams and Jeraill McCuller had some problems with USC's quickness at times. Overall, the unit was subpar and O'Brien hinted that changes could be made. If Vermiglio's out for an extended period of time, do you move R.J. Mattes to left tackle? Will another freshman be given a chance to play more time? Time will tell.
Going into the opener we consistently stated that this game would be won in the trenches. South Carolina won the game with its defensive line play. It's as simple as that.
The biggest question among Pack fans and various media outlets following the game was the play of quarterback Russell Wilson.
Wilson received a lot of hype in the offseason, and rightfully so, based on how he performed as a redshirt freshman in 2008. However, he totaled just 74 passing yards and rushed for a horrid -17 yards against the Gamecocks. So, what's wrong with Russell Wilson?
Maybe nothing, maybe something, but even he would be the first to admit that he didn't play his best game on Thursday night. He missed some receivers, but most are talking about how he didn't look as fast running with the football. Is his knee still bothering him? He added 10+ pounds of muscle in the offseason, has that slowed him down some? Is South Carolina's defense just that fast? Did NC State not ask him to run enough?
To be honest, it's probably a combination of all those things. Wilson now wears a knee brace as a result of the injury he suffered against Rutgers in the bowl game, and maybe that is hindering his running ability. He did add weight in the offseason, and could that have slowed him down a bit?
What caught our eye was USC's athleticism and ability to pursue. South Carolina's front four and linebackers might be the most athletic group Wilson will face all year. Ends Cliff Matthews and Devin Taylor can fly, and tackles Travian Robertson and Melvin Ingram are a converted defensive end and linebacker respectively so you know they can run for defensive tackles. USC's undersized linebackers were flying around the ball, and Eric Norwood might be the best linebacker in the country. Add all that up and USC's defense will make a lot of players look slow this fall.
Russell Wilson rarely
had time to make
plays in the pocket.
Last year he would look for a receiver and then tuck it and run, but against USC he kept his head downfield which allowed backside pursuit to gain acceleration before Wilson sensed the pressure. In the long run, you want your quarterbacks to go through the progressions, but that can only happen if he, and the receivers, have time to make plays.
The thing is with Wilson he's not a blinding fast runner in the first place. Coming out of high school he was a high 4.6-low 4.7 guy in the 40-yard dash. What he possesses is great vision and natural instincts, and he uses angles and jukes well to get by defenders.
Maybe it will take a few games to get that feel back... the feel for angles, the sensing of backside pressure, etc... Remember, Wilson's time on the gridiron was limited in the spring and all fall you can bet they were ultra conservative with the hits he took so he probably didn't run the ball much at all. Also, last year it took him 4-5 games before he showed flashes of being a dangerous runner. It really could be a case where he needs to get his feet wet against live competition and gain back those his instincts for finding angles and when to run or not run.
It's been one week. Wilson was off his game against the Gamecocks. Look for him to come out in the next few weeks and try to find his groove before Pittsburgh comes to town.
Ground Game Grounded
Continuing a trend in this story, NCSU's ground game never got going. There were very few rushing lanes and because NC State couldn't sustain drives, and USC managed the clock well which limited NCSU's possessions, the Pack's backs had very few rushing attempts.
We've always stated here that to effectively run the football... you have to run the football. Toney Baker, Jamelle Eugene, and James Washington had just 20 total carries for 76 yards. You're not going to be prolific rushing the football if you don't have more carries than that.
The carries will come once NC State can develop cohesion up front and make plays in all areas that will lead to sustained drives.
At The End Of The Day... Make A Play
NC State had its chances to make a play and win this game. Nothing is ever easy, but to win close games, to win any game, you have to make plays.
T.J. Graham broke free in the first quarter and was open deep. Wilson threw the ball down the middle of the field (instead of to the flag) which led Graham to a Gamecock safety, who broke up the pass. Release that pass a split-second earlier and that could be a touchdown. Throw it to Graham's opposite shoulder and it would be a touchdown.
Jay Smith had a chance to give
NC State the lead on this play.
If it wasn't for potentially huge plays like that, you had penalties wiping out positive gains for the Wolfpack. Wilson hit Owen Spencer on a deep seam route in the second quarter, but the play was called back after freshman Andrew Wallace was flagged for being down too far down the field. Jamelle Eugene broke free for a 15-yard gain in the third quarter... that play was called back after tight end George Bryan was flagged for illegal hands to the face. When you're struggling offensively, you can't have penalties take away the few big plays you do make.
Finally, if NC State could have one play back it might be the bomb Wilson threw to Jay Smith in the final minutes. Smith broke free on a deep post route and Wilson spotted him. Putting great touch on the ball, Wilson dropped it in over the top of two USC defenders (neither who touched the ball), but Smith couldn't come up with the catch. You make that play and NC State takes the lead with just a few minutes left in the game.
At the end of the day, to make plays you need everyone involved to do their job. The line has to block. The quarterback has to put the ball in a position for the wide receiver to catch it. Finally, if the ball hits your hands, you have to catch it.
Regardless of how ugly the game was, NC State had its chances to pull out the victory. They just didn't make enough plays.