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FSU vs. NC State: Preview, keys to victory

FSU (3-5, 2-3 ACC) returns home this weekend to take on NC State (6-2, 3-1) in Doak Campbell Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m. on the ACC Network. Chris Cotter will handle the play-by-play duties and will be joined in the booth by football analyst Mark Herzlich. FSU is a 2.5-point underdog to the Wolfpack. FSU leads the all-time series 27-14.

NC State 2021 Schedule and Results

NC State 45 USF 0

NC State 10 Mississippi State 24

NC State 45 Furman 7

NC State 27 Clemson 21

NC State 34 Louisiana Tech 27

NC State 33 Boston College 7

NC State 30 Miami 31

NC State 28 Louisville 13

Coaches’ Corner

Dave Doeren is in his ninth year leading the NC State program, where he has compiled an overall record of 61-48 in Raleigh. He went 23-4 in two years leading Northern Illinois prior to taking over NC State.

Tim Beck is in second season as the Wolfpack offensive coordinator. Prior to joining the NC State program he had stints at Texas, Ohio State and Nebraska in coordinator roles.

Tony Gibson is in his third season as the team’s defensive coordinator. Prior to joining the NC State program he had stints at West Virginia, Arizona, Pitt and Michigan.

By the Numbers: NC State’s Offense vs FSU’s Defense

NC State Total Offense- 416 YPG (56th in NCAA) vs FSU Total Defense- 387 YPG (68th in NCAA)

NC State Rushing Offense- 142 YPG (87th) vs FSU Rushing Defense- 162 YPG (82nd)

NC State Passing Offense- 273 YPG (30th) vs FSU Passing Defense- 225 YPG (62nd)

NC State Scoring Offense- 31.5 PPG (46th) vs FSU Scoring Defense- 26.9 PPG (73rd)

NC State Third-Down Offense- 42.9% (45th) vs FSU Third-Down Defense- 38.2% (60th)

NC State  Sacks Allowed- 1.5 spg (30th) vs FSU Sacks Made- 2.75 spg (27th)

NC State Run Plays Over 10 yards- 34 (93rd) vs FSU Runs Allowed Over 10 yards- 45 (86th)

NC State Pass Plays Over 20 yards-32 (32nd) vs FSU Passes Allowed Over 20 yards- 27 (71st)

NC State on Offense

The Wolfpack run a spread offense out of a base 11-personnel package (one back, one tight end). In short-yardage and goal-line situations they will utilize two and three tight end personnel groupings.

Quarterback Devin Leary (6-1, 212) leads the way for the very balanced offense — they have thrown the ball 53 percent of the time but it’s an RPO-heavy scheme. The redshirt sophomore has completed 66 percent of his passes (189 of 286) for 2,161 yards, 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions. While he is mobile and can make plays with his feet, Leary is a throw-first, run-when-you-have-to quarterback. He does have two rushing touchdowns but has minus-39 yards rushing this season.

Junior Ricky Person and sophomore Zonovan Knight are co-starters at running back and both are productive and versatile. Knight (5-11, 210) leads the team with 554 yards on the ground and has scored three touchdowns. He is also sixth on the team with 12 catches, which has produced 68 yards. Person is second on the team in rushing with 483 yards and has scored four touchdowns. He is fourth on the team with 19 receptions and fifth on the team with 151 receiving yards.

Senior Emeka Emezie (6-3, 212) is Leary’s favorite target at wide receiver. Emezie leads the team in both receptions (42) and receiving yards (543) and has two touchdown catches. Senior slot receiver Thayer Thomas (6-0, 197) is second in receptions (37) and second in receiving yards (399) and leads the team with six touchdowns catches. Sophomore Devin Carter (6-3, 216) is third in receptions (23) and receiving yardage (366) and has four touchdown catches. Leary will take shots downfield off play action, and they will attempt a lot of back-shoulder throws down the sideline. Nine different players have caught at least eight passes this season.

Tight ends are used more as blockers than pass catchers in NC State’s system. Senior starter Dylan Parham (6-5, 245) has just four receptions on the year.

NC State isn’t huge on the offensive line, where they average 6-3 and 307-pounds. They are young but experienced on the offensive line as three of their five starters are redshirt sophomores or younger. Sophomore left tackle Ikem Ekwonu (6-4, 320) is the best of the bunch and has 27 career starts for the Wolfpack. Redshirt junior right tackle Bryson Speas has 22 career starts and senior center Grant Gibson (6-1, 305) is the grey-beard of the group with 32 career starts (all at center).

By the Numbers: NC State’s Defense vs FSU’s Offense

FSU Total Offense- 391 YPG (75th) vs NC State Total Defense- 327 YPG (26th)

FSU Rushing Offense-209 YPG (21st) vs NC State Rush Defense- 108 YPG (18th)

FSU Passing Offense- 182 YPG (108th) vs NC State Pass Defense- 219 YPG (54th)

FSU Scoring Offense- 29.9 PPG (59th) vs NC State Scoring Defense- 16.2 PPG (6th)

FSU Third-Down Offense- 41.4% (56th) vs NC State Third-Down Defense- 28.3% (5th)

FSU Sacks Allowed- 2.88 spg (103rd) vs NC State Sacks Made-2.12 spg (65th)

FSU Run Plays Over 10 yards- 59 (10th) vs NC State Runs Allowed Over 10 yards- 27 (19th)

FSU Pass Plays Over 20 Yards- 20 (96th) vs NC State Passes Allowed Over 20 yards- 27 (71st)

NC State on Defense

You may not confuse the Wolfpack 3-3-5 multiple defense with Clemson’s but they have more than held their own this season, as the numbers suggest. FSU will face another tremendous challenge trying to run the ball against one of college football’s best run defenses. But if FSU can find some success in the run game it might open up some opportunities in the passing game, where NC State is prone to giving up the occasional big play. Like most teams this time of year the Wolfpack have been impacted by injuries on defense and will be without two of their top players against FSU. Linebacker Payton Wilson was lost for the season in September, and last week linebacker Isaiah Moore went down with an injury that will likely sideline him for the rest of the season. Moore is still ranked as the third leading tackler on the team despite only have played in six games this season.

One name familiar to most FSU fans will be Wolfpack starting nose tackle Cory Durden (6-4, 310), who transferred to NC State at the end of last season. The former Seminole has played in seven games this season and has made 20 tackles, including 3.5 tackles for a loss, which ranks fourth on the team and 2.5 sacks and 5 quarterback pressures. Defensive ends Daniel Joseph (6-3, 265) and Savion Jackson (6-2, 290) have both been highly productive. Joseph has 27 tackles this season including four TFLs, which ties him for second-most on the team in that category. Jackson has 22 tackles, 1.5 TFL’s and 5 quarterback pressures.

Despite the losses at linebacker this position group has been solid for NC State. Drake Thomas (6-0, 238) made the move to middle linebacker from outside linebacker after Moore went down. The sophomore made 15 tackles last week in his first action from the inside linebacker spot. He is the team’s leader in tackles (69), TFLs (6.5), sacks (4) and quarterback pressures (8). Outside linebackers Vi Jones (6-3, 227) and Jaylon Scott (6-4, 245) have seen more action than anticipated this season because of the injuries to Wilson and Moore. Jones has 21 tackles , 4 TFL’s and 8 quarterback pressures. Scott has 25 tackles, including 3 TFL’s. Another player who has been pressed into action for the Wolfpack at linebacker may be a familiar name to FSU fans. Caden Fordham (6-1, 214) , a freshman, is the son of former FSU and NFL offensive lineman Todd Fordham has three tackles this season from his backup outside linebacker spot.

The secondary is led by free safety Tanner Ingle (5-10, 182), corner Derrek Pitts (6-1, 186) and nickel back Tyler Baker-Williams (6-0, 209). Ingle is second on the team with 47 stops and led the team with four pass breakups. He is one of eight players who have also intercepted a pass this season. Pitts is fourth on the team with 30 tackles and has 2.5 TFLs. Baker-Williams is fifth on the team with 28 tackles including two TFL’s, 4 pass breakups and 5 quarterback hurries, which ties him for third on the team in that category.

For the season the Wolfpack defense has combined to rack up 45 TFLs, 17 sacks, nine interceptions, 31 pass breakups and 57 quarterback hurries.

NC State on Special Teams

Junior Christopher Dunn will handle the place-kicking duties for the Wolfpack. Dunn is 9 of 13 this season with two of his three misses coming from 50 yards or beyond. He is 6 of 7 from 20 to 39 yards and 3 of 4 from 40-45 yards.

Senior Trenton Gill will do the punting and handle kickoffs for NC State. He is having an outstanding season doing both. Gill is averaging 45.6 yards per punt with 20 of his 45 attempts resulting in opponents starting inside their own 20-yard line. He has 18 punts that have traveled more than 50 yards. Gill has forced opponents to fair catch 35 of his 45 kickoffs.

NC State has attempted returns on just 12 of 52 punt return opportunities, where the Wolfpack average 9 yards per attempt. They aren’t much more aggressive on kickoff returns, where they have attempted just 7 of 30 return opportunities.

The Osceola’s Keys to an FSU Win

  1. Passing Grade Part One: NC State may have the best collection of receivers Florida State has seen in 2021. The Wolfpack receivers have great size and have been very productive this season. NC State has been successful finding big plays in the passing game. FSU’s defense has gotten progressively better in not allowing them as they have gotten deeper into the 2021 season. That improvement will need to be validated on Saturday.
  2. Passing Grade Part Two: NC State’s defense will play tough and disciplined. We think they will commit numbers to the run on early downs, which means there will be big-play opportunities in the passing game. FSU needs to hit on a couple of these during the course of the game.
  3. Availability and Resilience: Coaches are keen on sayings like responsibility and dependability are the most important “abilities” a player can possess. I’ll add another ability — availability — after a hard-fought game at Death Valley last weekend and a freakish week of a non-Covid virus ravaging the campus. Which players will be available and at what positions? Whoever is available will need to sustain the resilience that is this team’s personality especially in a game that likely will be played in adverse weather conditions in Tallahassee. A steady rain began Thursday night with a forecast that predicts 80-plus percent chance of rain and winds of 10-plus mph throughout the game. These “sloggy” conditions could dampen offensive productivity, especially through the air, and favor the team who limits turnovers and negative plays, which may play in FSU’s favor. This game will test toughness.
  4. Being Best at What You Do Best: FSU runs the ball well. NC State stops the run well. Whichever unit does this closest to the manner to which they have been accustomed to doing it this season will give themselves a significant advantage in this game with all the other keys factored in.