Coming off six consecutive losses, the Hoos are hoping that a week off was enough to turn things around. With four games remaining, none of them easy, the Hoos simply must play better if they are going to have anything positive to work on going ahead to next season.
The Hoos haven't been awful the past couple of games, coming very close to getting wins on their home field. Falling into early holes due to special teams errors, the Hoos have rallied from behind, only to see minor mistakes finish them off.
The road has not been kind to the Hoos this year, as they are 0-3 and have lost each game by at least 20 points. This week they down to Raleigh, where they haven't won since 1999 and are 21-33 all time. Furthermore NC State is 5-3 including a win over then-#3 FSU. The Wolfpack lost last week @UNC 43-35. This week is also homecoming weekend for the Pack.
So, can the Hoos right the ship? Can they get off the schneid?
Virginia on Offense
I normally start my previews closest to the line and then move away. That is, generally, the way football works. However, NC State's secondary is so good, and their defense is so reliant on it, that I am forced to begin there.
When talking about the NC State secondary, you simply must begin with junior All-American CB David Amerson. Amerson won the Jack Tatum Trophy (give annually to the top DB in the country) last year, after picking off 13 passes. That set an ACC record, and was more than the Hoos had as a team. This year, Amerson has 4 interceptions (again higher than the Hoos have) despite teams routinely shying away from him.
As a team, NC State has picked off 10 passes on the season, after 23 last year. One of each has come from senior CB C.J. Wilson, although he isn't actually listed as the starter. The starting CB opposite Amerson is junior Dontae Johnson, who hasn't picked off a pass this year or last year. Johnson, however, is a bigger CB, which is part of why he starts. Amerson and Johnson are both 6'3" and about 195 pounds. Wilson, on the other hand, is 5'11" and 185 pounds. Wilson is the nickel back, and will probably see the field a fair amount this week considering our small-ish WRs.
The safeties for the Pack are also no joke. Two seniors, Brandon Bishop and Earl Wolff, each 6'2" and over 200 pounds can both play. Bishop picked off 5 passes last year and Wolff picked off 3. They each have 1 thus far this season. They are also 1-2 (Bishop then Wolff) in tackles this year, after finishing 2-3 (Wolff then Bishop) last year. There is little depth behind them, with a couple of redshirt freshmen on the two-deep. Hakim Jones will be the first off the bench if one of Bishop or Wolff needs to come off. Barring injury, (or blowout) that will not happen.
Having begun with the secondary, it makes sense to move on to the LBs next. NC State's defense is a pretty basic 4-3 defense. Their LBs are always in attack mode, often coming on blitzes regardless of whether it's a run or pass situation. All 3 of last year's LBs are gone, but the cupboard is far from bare. Senior starting MLB Sterling Lucasplayed 3 seasons before missing last year with a knee injury. He is the most experienced of the group, and is 4th on the team in tackles. Lucas is the steady performer, and is a solid run defender. The two OLBs are less experienced, but better players. Junior WLB Rickey Dowdy is third on the team in tackles and leads the team with 9 TFLs. Sophomore SLB Rodman Noel is 2nd with 6 TFLs. Noel is a converted safety, and has the speed you'd expect from a former DB. Noel, at just 6'3" 210 pounds, has good cover skills but can be beaten by bigger TEs in the passing game. Noel, because of his cover skills, is used less on the blitz than the other two, but his speed helps him in the running game.
The Pack rotate 4 guys regularly at DE, led by junior Darryl Cato-Bishop. Cato-Bishop leads the team with 4.5 sacks and will likely lead the group in snaps. Cato-Bishop plays on the left side. The starter opposite him is senior Brian Slay. Slay has 2 sacks, as does sophomore Art Norman, who will likely see almost as many snaps as Slay. Norman led the team in sacks a year ago. Behind Cato-Bishop is senior McKay Frandson, but he won't sub in quite as much as the RE guys do. We may also see redshirt freshman Mike Rose, a smaller DE who has earned snaps with his solid play, but isn't ready for primetime yet.
In the middle, the Pack really only rotate 3 guys. In this case, the starters are sophomores T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal. Teal is 315 pounds and is the real space eater inside. McGill, at 290, is more of a playmaker and is 2nd on the team in TFLs with 7 and in sacks with 3. Behind the two starters is junior A.J. Ferguson, who will be the first DT off the bench.
The Hoos interior OL is going to have its work cut out for it keeping Teal and McGill out of the backfield. Considering their play thus far this season, I wouldn't expect much success there. This means the Hoos will be forced to run outside, which means running at the Pack's solid OLBs and safeties. Also not a recipe for success. I guess that means the Hoos will be forced to throw the ball, against a veteran ball-hawking secondary. Oh, I fear this could get ugly.
Seriously though, the Hoos may have success with their trap plays and misdirection plays. NC State's defense is very aggressive and likes to attack the backfield. We may be able to hit on some delayed runs behind those aggressive OLBs and DEs and get into the defensive secondary. The Pack's CBs are obviously very good, which means that throwing anything outside is dangerous. However, passes over the middle to the TEs or RBs could be successful. Screen passes should also work, although I might stay away from the WR screens because of the aggressiveness of the Pack CBs.
QB Phillip Sims is good at throwing the ball on the run, so getting him out of the pocket may help neutralize the Wolfpack pass rush. Sims will have to be careful though, and not force things into coverage, a problem that has hampered him this season.
NC State's defense relies on its pass rush and attacking style. They are 8th in the nation in TFLs and 12th in sacks. They are, however, just 108th in pass defense. They succeed by forcing the offense into mistakes. That means turnovers and that means negative plays, two things that (along with penalties) the Virginia offense has struggled with all season. Avoiding these mistakes will go a long way towards making the offense successful. (All stats courtesy ncaa.org.)
Virginia on Defense
NC State's offense is built around senior QB Mike Glennon. NC State boasts the 18th ranked passing offense in the nation, but just the 99th ranked rushing offense. Glennon is 20th in the nation in total offense and 59th in passing efficiency.
The Pack also have a deep, solid stable of WRs. That group is led by senior Tobias Palmer, junior Quintin Payton and sophomore Bryan Underwood. Palmer is the veteran of the group, having finished 4th in receptions last year. Palmer is also probably the fastest of the 3. Payton is the most reliable, and leads the team with 34 receptions this year. Payton also averages almost 18 yards per reception. Underwood is really the best receiver of the group, and has 10 TDs on 28 receptions. All 3 are capable of hitting on big plays at any time, and will have to be watched constantly. Payton is, by far, the biggest of the trio, at 6'4" 210 pounds. Underwood and Palmer are 5'11" 175. Underwood will spend a lot of time in the slot. Palmer returns kicks and is pretty good at it.
NC State lost a 4 year starter at TE when George Bryan left as the all time leading receiver at TE in school history. His backup for the past 3 years was Mario Carter, who now gets to start as a senior. Carter has 18 receptions this season, but averages just 9 yards per reception. His backup is Asa Watson, who has 16 catches and averages over 11 yards per reception. NC State will often go with 2 TEs.
The top RBs for the Pack are sophomore Tony Creecy and true freshman Shadrach Thornton. Both are in the 6'0" 200 pound range, and are more power oriented than speed oriented. Creecy has roughly a third of the team's carries (that includes sacks and scrambles) and leads the team with nearly 400 yards rushing. But he averages just 4 yards per carry, while Thornton has averaged over 5 yards per carry and has 300 yards on less than 2/3 as many carries. Creecy is a good receiver out of the backfield and will need to be watched. Last year's starter, senior James Washington was 2nd on the team in receptions last year, to give you an idea of how much Glennon will throw to his backs. Washington is out for the season after tearing "pretty much everything in his knee", according to coach Tom O'Brien.
Starting FB Logan Winkles has just 4 receptions on the season, but that includes a TD. It will be necessary to watch him around the goalline. Wrinkles has good speed too, for a FB, and could be used on screens or swing passes.
Up front, the Wolfpack have 4 returning starters from last year's OL, although not all of them are at the same positions and not all of them have been starting all season. The best is probably 6'6" 306 lb senior R.J. Mattes. Virginia fans may recognize the name, because his dad Ron Mattes played for the Hoos in the 80s and coached the OL as recently as 2 years ago. Mattes is normally the starting LT, but has moved inside because of an injury to starting LG Zach Allen. Mattes moves inside, and junior Rob Crisp (6'7" 312) takes over at LT. Crisp was one of the top OL prospects in the nation in 2010, but hasn't really lived up to that billing and has missed time this year with a back injury.
At C, senior Camden Wentz (6'3" 301) has started 34 consecutive games and was on the preseason Remington Award watch list. The RG is 6'6" 302 lb junior Duran Christophe. Christophe started every game last season, but has spent most of this season as a reserve behind senior Andrew Wallace. Wallace is out this week, so Christophe steps in. The RT is sophomore Tyson Chandler (6'6" 340), who is the lone new starter from last year. Chandler has started on both sides this year, as various injuries have jumped the Pack OL from game to game.
The key to stopping the State offense is by getting pressure on Glennon. Glennon has been sacked 24 times this year, which is 105th in the nation. Because of all the injuries, the Pack OL hasn't performed as well as you'd expect considering their experience. Crisp and Chandler can both be beaten off the edge, which may be part of why freshman DE Eli Harold is getting his first career start. His quickness will be a problem for Chandler, who is simply too heavy to deal with good quick DEs. DTs Will Hill and Chris Brathwaite are both quick enough to bother Christophe, who is solid but lost his starting job for a reason.
Our young secondary has struggled at times this season, so facing a QB like Glennon is a daunting task. If he has time to throw, he will pick our defense apart. Getting in his face, and forcing him out of his comfort zone is the only way to slow him down.
On the ground, the Pack will run to set up the pass, but don't really have a big play back with the injury to James Washington. Our run defense has been spectacular the past few weeks, so NC State probably won't be expecting to have much success there. They will, of course, show run enough to make us respect it, but the passing game figures to be where they'll find success.
NC State's high powered passing offense does not match up well with our young, inexperienced secondary. Their veteran secondary also does not match up well with our offense, which relies far too much on the pass due to OL issues. If we can run the ball against the Pack defene, we can be successful. That means not getting stuck in long down and distance situations due to negative plays and penalties, which has happened far too often this year. And, as usual, turnovers will kill us.
At the time I write this, NC State is favored by 9.5 points. The Hoos are 0-8 against the spread this year, so the smart money would have us losing by 10 or more.
Prediction: Wolfpack 28, Hoos 14