"We weren't a good defense at all," said senior linebacker Nate Irving. "I think we had some good players, but we just weren't a good defensive unit. I looked at it, but I didn't want to accept how you could have good people and still struggle on defense."
Part of the problem was Irving watched from the sidelines instead of contributing. He was expected to lead State defensively, but he missed the year with injuries sustained in an automobile accident. Most observers believed he would be the man NC State would lean on when they needed a big play.
"The thing that Nate does is Nate finishes plays," said NC State head coach Tom O'Brien. "He's always been a finisher. A lot of guys can read plays and a lot of guys sees things when they get there... as I said earlier, they like to inspect the body when they get there. That's not Nate. He goes there and makes the play."
Where NC State may have missed Irving the most was on third down. The inability to get off the field was arguably State's biggest problem defensively in 2009 and it all starts with third-down defense. The Pack ranked No. 92 nationally in third down conversion defense, as opposing offenses converted 43% of the time.
Early in the year it didn't look like third-down defense would be an issue. South Carolina converted just 5-of-15 chances in the season opener. Gardner-Webb and Murray State converted only 3-of-25 chances between them. Even Pittsburgh, which featured a strong, balanced offensive attack, was just 2-of-10 on third down in their loss to the Wolfpack.
However, the wheels came off at Wake Forest the following week and only continued as teams sustained drives and lit up the scoreboard against State. The Deacs converted 9-of-17 attempts on third down in their six-point win, and Duke came into Raleigh and held the ball for an astounding 40 minutes while converting 13-of-19 third downs. Over the final eight games of the year, NC State's defense yielded first downs 53% of the time their opponents faced a third down. It's easy to see why the Pack finished 2-6 in those games when observing that stat.
"We couldn't get off the field," said Irving. "We couldn't stop the other team. I don't think we did enough of that or did that too well. That's going to hurt us in the long run. You stay on the field and get tired. You want to get off the field on third down, and we weren't able to do that."
NC State had similar problems in 2008 when Irving was on the sidelines. The Pack's star linebacker virtually missed four games with nagging ankle injuries, as he didn't play in the losses to South Florida, Boston College, and Maryland, and he didn't start and only played 18 snaps in the loss to Florida State. In those four games, the opposition converted on third down 51% of the time. Irving started the other nine games in 2008, and the Pack defense limited opponents to just a 34% conversion rate on the most important down in football.
"He's got us off the field in a lot of crucial situations when he has played," O'Brien said of Irving. "If he can play 12 games and play middle linebacker the way he's capable of playing it will be a big boost to the defense."
"Third down is supposed to be your money down," Irving said. "You want to get off the field."
Getting off the field isn't just about third-down defense. NC State also must force more turnovers in 2010. Two years ago, the Wolfpack generated 28 turnovers defensively, which ranked in the Top 30 nationally. Last year (in one fewer game) State forced a meager 14 turnovers, which ranked No. 116 in the country and last in the ACC.
Irving, who in 2008 set the school record for interceptions by a linebacker, knows it is vital to force turnovers because doing so limits drives and gives your offense another scoring opportunity.
"That comes down to making plays," said Irving. "We need to step up and make more plays on defense."
"Our defense will be defined by how well we play. [Last year] our run defense sucked when our pass defense was good. We've got to step it up on both ends and be a balanced defense. If we can do that our defense will improve so much."
Making plays defensively is going to be key for NC State, and they will need more than Nate Irving to step up and be a playmaker to be a better unit.
An improved defense will yield more wins for NC State, something Wolfpack fans are hoping to see this fall.