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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia vs. NC State

Can the Hoos hit the road and pull off an upset in Raleigh?

Georgia State v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Virginia Cavaliers running back Daniel Hamm played five years for the football team and never once faced the Wolfpack of NC State. The last time these two teams faced off was 2012, and the next time will be 2023. That 2012 was also in Raleigh, with the last home game against NC State was 2011. That means Virginia will go 12 years between games in which they host NC State. Three entire graduating classes at Virginia will have never seen the Hoos face NC State at home. That’s ACC scheduling for you.

This year’s NC State team is 3-0 and had a matchup against West Virginia postponed because of Hurricane Florence. It isn’t known yet if the game will be made up, and the two team’s schedules do not match up well. There’s a very good chance the game is not played, unless one team needs an extra game to reach bowl eligibility. That seems unlikely at this point.

NC State is currently ranked 29th in the country by S&P, making them by far the best team Virginia has played this year. It will be a challenge.

The game will begin at 12:20 PM EST and air on Raycom Sports. Let’s take a look.

Virginia on Offense

Just in case you missed it. Or, just in case you haven’t watched it in a few hours:

We simply have not had a QB with that kind of athleticism in a long, long time. Bryce Perkins is 44th in the nation in rushing yards and is averaging over five yards per carry. Jordan Ellis, meanwhile, is 13th in the nation in rushing and is averaging over six yards per carry. As a team, the Hoos are 33rd in rushing offense (25th in yards per carry). Over the past 10 years, the highest a Virginia team has ranked in rushing offense is 56th. In more than half of the last 10 years, Virginia finished outside of the top 100.

It isn’t just Bryce Perkins, though he obviously helps. Sure, the competition hasn’t been great yet. But last year, against a bad W&M team, Virginia rushed for just 92 yards. Last year’s high in rushing was 171 yards against UCONN. This year, so far, the team’s LOWEST rushing total is 173 yards against Ohio (h/t Danny).

NC State’s run defense last year ranked 26th in the nation. They had four defensive linemen selected in the NFL Draft, including #5 overall pick Bradley Chubb. This year so far, they’re 22nd in rushing defense. That’s likely to get worse, since their next four games are all against teams in the top 33 in the nation in rushing. It’s still impressive considering the talent they lost.

Despite losing all that DL talent to the NFL, there is still a great deal of talent there. The unit is led by senior DE Darian Roseboro, who, despite never being a full-time starter, is 15th in NC State history in sacks. All four starters on the line are in at least their 4th year of college football (NT Larrell Murchison is a transfer from JUCO Louisburg College and redshirted last year). Look for the Hoos to shade protection towards Roseboro’s side.

Senior DT Eurndraus Bryant is a 330 pound behemoth that can cause problems up the middle. The interior of the Wahoo OL has been outstanding for most of this year, and that’ll need to continue this week. Getting pressure up the middle is the quickest way to disrupt the zone read option. That play has been a bread-and-butter of the Virginia offense this year, and will be a priority for the Wolfpack defense.

The DL still appears to be the strength of the defense, but the best player on the defense is probably MLB Germaine Pratt. A former free safety, he runs very well and is excellent in coverage. He’s bulked up significantly from the 190 pound defensive back he was when he arrived in Raleigh. He did not start a game last year, and still finished 4th on the team in tackles. He’s leading the team this year, and has thrown in a sack, four QB pressures, and pass break up.

NC State, like so many teams in college football, plays a 4-2-5 nickel package as their base defense. Amazingly, they actually call the nickel DB the “Nickel”. How unoriginal. Head coach Dave Doeren couldn’t come up with a fancy name for the position?

The two safeties are both talented and experienced. Jarius Moorehead was recruited as a WR, but quickly moved to defense during his redshirt year. He’s excelled there and is currently second on the team in tackles. He also picked off a pass and returned it for a score to lock down the win over Marshall (below).

That play was really made by Tanner Ingle, the true freshman nickel back, who had excellent coverage on the WR. Earlier in the game, though, Ingle was beaten badly on a go route by Marshall’s inside WR.

Robert Anae will move the WRs around to get Ingle matched up with one of his deep threats. Ingle simply can’t stay with Joe Reed or Tavares Kelly in single coverage. That’s a matchup Bryce Perkins will look to exploit.

The CBs are small on both experience and size. Both are listed at 6-0, 186. They’re going to have trouble with any press coverage against Hasise Dubois or Joe Reed, both of whom are 215 pounds or more. We expected to see Louisville run a soft zone, trying to keep plays in front of them and avoid giving up big plays. They didn’t, though. They ran a lot of man coverage and focused on stopping Jordan Ellis, and they had a couple of talented CBs who could run with Olamide Zaccheaus and company. NC State’s defensive strength isn’t at CB, so they may be forced to play off the line a bit more. That means there should be quick passes open to the WRs, which means they’ll have to break a tackle or two here and there. It also probably means there won’t be much running room for Perkins, so he’ll have to be patient and take what they give him.

NC State and Indiana are similarly ranked in defensive S&P, meaning they are the two best defenses the Hoos have played thus far and arguably the two best they’ll face all year (Miami might have something to say about that…Virginia Tech might’ve before last week). Indiana was able to keep Virginia’s offense off-balance, but the weather also contributed to that. We’ll finally get a really good sense of just how good this offense is on Saturday afternoon.

Virginia on Defense

The NC State offense has been getting all the attention, with Ryan Finley looking like one of the top QBs in the nation and a potential top overall pick in next year’s draft. But, the offense has actually been underwhelming. They currently rank 54th in the nation in S&P. Finley has been good, though, as he’s 36th in the nation in QB rating and 29th in yards per attempt. He’s also 12th in ESPN’s Total QBR, which accounts for passing, rushing, sacks, and penalties – everything a college QB controls.

But they’ve really struggled to get anything going on the ground. As a team, they average under 3.5 yards per carry. They’re 117th in the nation in rushing and 4th in the nation in passing. That kind of imbalance often spells doom in the long run. But with Finley at the helm, the offense is humming right along and averaging nearly 500 yards per game. Their worst performance was their season opener against JMU, who held them to just 392 total yards. JMU has one of the best defenses in FCS. A performance like theirs will go a long way in setting up a Virginia win.

Finley really spreads the ball around. Five NC State WRs have at least 10 catches, with none over 18. Kevin Harmon leads the team with 312 yards. He was over 1000 yards last year, and is on that pace again. He’s about the same size as Hasise Dubois, but more of a deep threat. This is the kind of play he can make:

This is actually an underthrow from Finley, and a better pass might’ve been six. Don’t expect that from Finley very often. Here’s a couple of examples of what Finley can do:

You simply cannot throw that fade pass any better.

Above is an example of what Finley can do on the move. That is a picture perfect throw on the sidelines. Finley’s mobile enough that he rushed for 194 yards last year, including a 46 yarder. But when he moves, he’s still looking to throw. That’s why he’s a “pro-style” QB and Bryce Perkins is a “dual-threat” QB. Finley actually had two receptions last year, and NC State loves to use some trickeration. The Hoos need to watch for flea-flickers and similar plays.

NC State’s answer to Zaccheaus is Jakobi Myers. He was a QB as a recruit, and missed his freshman year with knee surgery. He moved to WR after that and had 63 catches last year. Like OZ, he’s the type of athlete who can turn a five yard hitch into a 70 yard TD.

NC State will line up with three or four WRs on almost every play. They’ll use a TE occasionally, but none of their TEs have even one catch this year. They are blockers. The Hoos will counter with nickel looks on most plays. With Jordan Mack out, we might even see some dime. I would not be surprised to see a 2-3-6 defense from the Hoos this week. The Hoos are deep at DB, thin at LB and very thin on the DL.

Of course, playing that defense would leave the Hoos susceptible to the rushing attack. That would’ve been a big issue last year, when NC State had 1100 yard rusher Nyheim Hines. Hines is now in the NFL and NC State does not have anybody at his level in the backfield right now. Reggie Gallaspy is the starter, and he’s got 173 yards rushing through three games. He does have four TDs and at 5-11, 235, he’s tough around the goal line.

Whatever defense the Hoos are in, the DL and the ILBs need to be able to handle the run. Juan Thornhill has been great in run support, but he’s going to be needed in pass coverage this week. Brenton Nelson is also going to be huge this week because of his coverage capabilities. Virginia has played a lot of single-coverage this year, and mostly haven’t been beat. But they haven’t faced a QB nearly as good as Finley. If Finley gets a good matchup in single coverage, he’s go after it. He only needs to hit it once or twice to change the game.

Conclusion

The Hoos have a bye next week, before getting Miami and Duke in back-to-back weekends. This three-game stretch is really going to determine Virginia’s season. Going 0-3 means struggling to make a bowl. Going 1-2 means a bowl game is pretty likely. Going 2-1 or 3-0 gives the Hoos a chance to compete for the Coastal Division title.

NC State is probably better than Duke, but worse than Miami. Meaning this game is key. If it were at home, I think Virginia might find a way to win. But on the road, against a good team with a strong defense and a great QB, I just can’t see Virginia finding enough points to come out on top. They’ll slow down Finley but he’ll do enough to win.

Prediction: Wolfpack 27, Virginia 17 (season record 3-1)