What to Watch for: NC State

In this new feature, GamecockAnthem.com takes a special inside look at the "game within the game" with several story lines for you follow during the Gamecocks' match-up with N.C. State tonight. With so much taking place throughout the course of a game it can be a daunting task to keep up with everything. This will provide you with several things to keep an eye on and look out for tonight.

How does Taylor respond?

You already know the deal. 6-8, 281-pound junior Clifton Geathers is out and 6-7, 235-pound redshirt freshman Devin Taylor is in at defensive end. While the talented Taylor has been extremely active in scrimmage situations and has become a favorite of defensive line coach Brad Lawing, he's still playing in the first real game of his college career.

Taylor will undoubtedly be tested early and often. While it remains to be seen if the Wolfpack will literally seek to run to Taylor's side time after time or will simply just play their game so to speak, regardless, Taylor is going to see his share of run plays coming straight at him. If the Wolfpack do attack Taylor's side, then how the young end responds will play a key factor in the outcome of the game.

Should State have success running at Taylor, then keep a close eye on how head coach in charge of the defense Ellis Johnson responds. There are several options, all of which have consequences. One option would be to roll boundary safety Darian Stewart (or backup DeVonte Holloman) into the box, but that of course weakens coverage of the deep ball, forces field safety Chris Culliver into covering more ground and puts each corner on an island at times. It is also possible that Stewart could move into the box for this reason, while also serving as the much-needed "spy" of quarterback Russell Wilson.

Another potential option would be to run "stunts" on the defensive line essentially swapping the defensive ends and defensive tackles as the snap takes place. This is useful in specific situations, but simply swaps the weakness from the outside of the d-line to the interior in the long team. A final option would be to shift Eric Norwood in that direction and get creative with his positioning. Of course, this weakens the other side, but if Cliff Matthews and Nate Pepper can pick up the slack, it could be an option.

The best case scenario is, of course, that Taylor holds his own and keeps State honest. But if he can't there's no question Ellis Johnson will come up with the best option to possibly alleviate the problem.

How much three-man front will we see?

With redshirt freshman Kenny Davis now part of the growing list of defensive linemen who won't suit up for tonight's game, USC is down to basically a three-man rotation at defensive tackle. Should State be able to grind out drives and keep the Gamecock defense on the field, then that will undoubtedly wear out the interior linemen and force Ellis Johnson's hand.

Will Johnson decide to take a preemptive approach and simply go with heaps of the 3-3-5 alignment from the beginning or will Johnson only make the switch if the interior linemen begin to get winded? I don't have your answer, but if you see a lot of the four-man front early, and then see a noticeable shift to a three-man front, that could be a tell-tale sign that the Gamecock defensive tackles may be starting to wear down. How this situation is handled, could play a major factor in how the Gamecocks' defense plays in the fourth quarter.

Luckily for the defense, the 3-3-5 alignment is a package in the Gamecocks' scheme already. Overall, for most of the defenders the responsibilities don't seem to change much from the normal 4-2-5 alignment. The 3-3-5 package essentially puts sophomore linebacker Shaq Wilson on the field as a weakside linebacker and moves Eric Norwood to what is called a "BOB" linebacker. The "BOB" backer is simply a roaming rush end that allows Norwood to potentially get loose more often.

Can USC make the State secondary pay?

There's no question that the biggest weakness of the State defense lies within the secondary. While head coach Steve Spurrier has maintained for the entire offseason that his offense needs to establish and stick with the run, let's be honest here: The Head Ball Coach isn't going to let a known weakness in any secondary his team faces simply pass without trying to exploit it for all it's worth.

USC will certainly try to establish the run, but you can bet your Cock-a-boose that Spurrier is going to take his shots down field, particularly into the intermediate area of the Wolfpack zone defense. How will the State defense respond and if they aren't up to the challenge personnel-wise, will the coaches be able to adjust accordingly?

Another thing to keep an eye on is how well the State secondary is able to tackle in the open field. For the first time in the Spurrier Era, the Gamecocks have running backs that are capable of consistently getting to the next level. Whether or not the State defenders can tackle the Gamecock backs in the open field could play a big factor.

How does N.C. State respond to the USC running game?

One question that has seemed to come up in the minds of those who follow the NC State program closely is, just what will the Gamecock rushing attack look like schematically under the command of Eric Wolford? While the strength of the entire Wolfpack team may be the defensive line, the State coaches have no film of the current rushing attack to go off of virtually leaving the defensive coaches in the dark. Will USC choose to go under center with an adjusted version of the traditional Spurrier running game or will it be a carbon copy of the scheme Wolford was involved with at Illinois?

Regardless of what the scheme looks like, there is likely going to be an adjustment period if the Gamecocks are able to come out of the gate and effectively run the football against the State front seven. Not knowing what to expect almost forces the State coaches to go with a base defense and react to what the USC offense does, and making an adjustment could take multiple drives depending on just how well-prepared the State defense is.

The Wolford system is built on having a response to everything the defense does. If NC State is able to adjust, the next thing to look for is, how long it takes Wolford and the USC offensive staff to adjust accordingly? This may be the biggest of what will be several game-within-the-game chess matches tonight.

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