The Irish offensive line will be in for a challenge on Saturday against N.C. State based on early returns in Raleigh. Irish Illustrated caught up with James Henderson of PackPride.com for an inside look at what awaits Notre Dame during its second straight noon kickoff against an ACC foe.
Pete Sampson: The biggest advertised strength of N.C. State this off-season was that defensive line. Has it played out that way during the 3-1 start?
James Henderson: I think it’s clearly been the strength of the team and it’s definitely been the best part about the defense. Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson said before last week’s game (a 33-16 N.C. State win) that he thought it was the best defensive line in the entire ACC. Obviously that’s saying a lot.
The thing about that group is that they’re all experienced and they’re good enough to get pressure with just four. You won’t see N.C. State blitz a lot because they don’t have to. You’ve got a lot of juniors playing the position and one senior in the mix too. Most of them have been playing since their freshman year, so this is the time when it’s supposed to all come together.
PS: Of all the guys in that group, who’s the best when you look at why N.C. State ranks 35th in sacks per game and 21st in tackles for loss per game within a defense that’s allowed just one 50-yard play all year? That’s on top of giving up just 99 yards rushing per game.
JA: Bradley Chubb is the guy who stands out to me because he’s one of those hybrid edge rushers who used to be a linebacker and much lighter before growing into a 6-foot-4, 275-pound athlete off the edge. He’s one of those new age defensive ends that you need to defend the spread because he can play the read-option so well. He can move laterally and has the kind of feet you need to read out the read option. He had a couple sacks last week against Wake Forest.
PS: The quarterback position is interesting with Boise State transfer Ryan Finley. He was a backup under Mike Sanford and ultimately transferred to Raleigh even though he’s from Phoenix, Ariz. You’ve only seen four games, but do you see a quarterback who’s good or just good enough?
JA: He’s been outstanding. Yes, N.C. State hasn’t played great competition and the schedule is back loaded with Notre Dame, Clemson, Florida State and Louisville. So the tests are going to come. But so far he’s exceeded my expectations by a lot. He’s completing 72.4 percent of his passes, has thrown nine touchdowns, hasn’t thrown a pick.
You saw quarterback Daniel Jones at Duke and the Wake Forest defense sort of shut him down. Well, Finley put up 300 yards and three touchdowns last week against that Wake defense. He distributes the ball so well and it just feels like he sort of gets how it’s all supposed to work. It helps that offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz came over from Boise State this off-season, so Finley knew the offense right away. Drinkwitz followed Sanford in that offensive coordinator role at Boise.
I expected Finley to have a big year and yeah, he’s going to throw an interception eventually. But what’s impressed me is that he doesn’t seem to make any mistakes, doesn’t get penalties, doesn’t throw 50-50 balls that you feel like N.C. State got lucky to catch. Everything just looks seamless.
PS: What’s he feeling about head coach Dave Doeren around N.C. State right now? It’s hard to believe that he’s 0-18 there against teams that finished with a winning record. That’s almost ridiculous.
JA: That’s a true stat. It’s also true there are four games that N.C. State won that stopped the another team from finishing with a winning record. I think some of it goes back to when he came in, Doeren basically blew up the program and did a complete rebuild. They went 3-9 overall and 0-8 in the ACC that year. So you’re not beating any teams with a winning record that year, obviously. On top of that, being in the Atlantic Division, you get Florida State, Clemson and Louisville every year.
Doeren isn’t losing to bad teams, but he’s not beating the good ones either. I really think this is the season when they have a chance to do that. The defense is playing about 10 juniors in the main lineup. I feel like this is the year when N.C. State feels like it should compete with those better teams.
PS: So is the mood that this is basically make it or break it for Doeren?
JA: You know how it is. That’s the nature of the game. I would imagine some people feel that way about Brian Kelly. I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, but it’s definitely win now. People don’t want to hear about Duke and Wake Forest coming on. N.C. State wants to be elite. Losing to East Carolina hurt.
Maybe it’s good that Notre Dame is not typical Notre Dame this year. When you draw the Irish at home once every six or seven years, you want a real shot to beat them. N.C. State should have that chance this time. Florida State isn’t what it’s been either, so that might help down the road. Maybe N.C. State finally gets lucky and wins some of these games that it hasn’t under Doeren.
PS: Notre Dame’s biggest weakness has been the secondary and at one point there were four freshmen on the field at the same time against Syracuse. Does N.C. State have the material at receiver to push the ball vertically?
JA: To be honest, receiver was my biggest question mark coming into this year. Running back Matt Dayes is a weapon. So is H-Back Jaylen Samuels, who’s sort of like a new age tight end and put up 16 touchdowns last year but nine of them were rushing. Those guys are the major focal points. So I really didn’t know what N.C. State was going to get from the receiver spot. So far, so good.
Stephen Louis and Kelvin Harmon both have really good size, your typical 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 receivers who are bigger than 200 pounds. They’re both physical, they can both push the field vertically. I’d imagine that’s what N.C. State will try to do this week against Notre Dame with Finley’s accuracy. Switching offensive coordinators has allowed Louis and Harmon to be more focal points of the offense, but N.C. State is still at its best when it’s running the football.
PS: If N.C. State wins on Saturday, who’s sort of your X-factor guy that has to play well?
JA: Definitely running back Matt Dayes. That’s the priority. N.C. State has been over 200 yards rushing in three of its four games and the fourth didn’t happen because the starters were pulled late. Remember, Dayes led the ACC in rushing for a lot of last year before breaking his toe. And this league has Dalvin Cook and Elijah Hood in it.
So if I’m N.C. State, I’m riding Dayes in part to keep DeShone Kizer off the field. Pound the ball with the back averaging 110 yards per game. When N.C. State runs the ball well, it’s tough to beat. That has to be the offensive approach.
PS: What do you know the least about right now with N.C. State? When you look at the roster, what’s your biggest question?
JA: I don’t have any questions about the offense right now. The quarterback was a question, but that’s been answered. The receiver position was a question, but that’s been answered. But I still want to know more about the secondary, even if it’s played well this year. Because it’s not seen anything like DeShone Kizer before and I think as a pure passer this guy is better than Deshaun Watson. I really don’t think enough N.C. State fans know about Kizer and just how talented he is. They’ll see on Saturday.
One thing about N.C. State so far is they’ve been really good about not giving up long passes. They haven’t allowed a 50-yard completion all year (Notre Dame scored on three 50-yard completions against Syracuse). And N.C. State has been really good in the red zone defensively. Last week Wake Forest got down there three times and kicked three field goals. Playing the spread today, that’s as good as it gets. I really want to see what kind of pressure the Notre Dame passing game puts on the N.C. State defense.
PS: For Notre Dame fans making their first trip to Raleigh, and considering this is the program’s first trip there that means that’s just about everybody, what’s worth checking out?
JA: I know Notre Dame has a lot of good tradition and has some in hoops as well. If you’re into that, go over and check out Reynolds Coliseum. N.C. State has been playing there since the 50’s and there’s a lot of history. Plenty of nostalgia and some cool Olympic stuff too. It’s not just N.C. State memorabilia, there’s some good ACC history in that building.
For restaurants, Amedeo’s is a great Italian place that’s actually owned by a former N.C. State football player. I didn’t grow up here in Raleigh, but it’s a great environment with a lot of stuff to do. You won’t have a hard time finding something to do here next weekend. There will be plenty going on.