Today we are joined by Steven ("AkulaWolf") of Backing The Pack, my favorite NC State site among a surprisingly strong group of NC State writers. I wonder why it is that State has four or five quality sites and Carolina has one or two. This year NC State sits at 5-2 and 2-1 in conference. Can the Wolfpack pull off the upset tomorrow night? How good is this NC State team? We're sure to find out tomorrow night, but for now let's ask Steven.
1. Sitting at 5-2, has the 'Pack already exceeded your expectations for this season?
By far. We've already won as many games as I thought we would the entire year, and I thought going in that there was a good chance we'd start conference play 0-3. Several of the teams we've played--Cincinnati, Georgia Tech, Boston College--aren't as good as anticipated, so that's part of it, but this team is definitely better than expected.
2. I noticed that NC State is running an incredible 83 plays per ACC game this year, up about 20% from the 69 plays the 'Pack averaged per ACC game last year. What gives? Does O'Brien trust this team more? I'll admit I have not watched much NC State yet (though I plan to before the preview). Is this no huddle?
That caught my eye as well. In terms of tempo, the offense generally operates at the deliberate pace we've seen in the past. We have gone no huddle on occasion, but only rarely. I think there are a few factors contributing to the higher play total: first and foremost, the defense is getting off the field on third down a lot more often this season. Opponents converted 42.5% of their third downs in 2009; this year, just 28.7% (that makes NC State the sixth-best 3rd down D in the country). Along with that, I think we're forcing three-and-outs considerably more often.
We already have more takeaways this season (17) than we did all of 2009 (14).
It also feels like the offense isn't scoring on the big plays quite as often--we've had just six plays from scrimmage go for 40+ yards, and while I don't have a figure from '09 to compare that to, it seems low. As one example, Owen Spencer has yet to score on a big pass play. So maybe it's a case where the offense has gotten less from explosive plays and thus has had to sustain longer drives.
I think the coaches do trust this team more, as the skill positions are littered with upperclassmen. Russell Wilson has been given more opportunities to throw the ball than ever before.
3. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you to talk about the injury situation. It's been said that NC State has been the unluckiest team in the country over the last two years when it comes to injuries (UCLA fans might argue this). How has the team's health been this season and how has the health situation impacted the team's development and depth?
The depth chart hardly changes from week to week, and if there are changes, it's because one guy is out-playing another, not because someone broke a knee. We lost a cornerback to a knee injury during fall camp. We lost a right tackle during the Central Florida game but got another back from a knee injury shortly thereafter. Other than that, we've been healthy. It's weird.
I think it's meant a lot to the defense, where we lack experience or proven backups in a number of areas. The coaches finally have the luxury of working those reserves in gradually rather than forcing them into the fire out of necessity.
4. How has the offense changed this season, if at all? Were the changes a reaction to available personnel or a philosophical change?
More than ever before, it's Russell Wilson's show. While our freshman running back tandem has been good, perhaps exceeding expectations, the offense is geared toward the pass and getting the ball to our talented receivers and tight end. Wilson is averaging 42 attempts per game and the team ranks seventh nationally in pass attempts.
5. How has the defense changed this season, if at all? Were the changes a reaction to available personnel or a philosophical change?. Is this defense actually better, or has it just gotten luckier with turnovers?
You can tell things are different simply by the fact that defensive coordinator Mike Archer isn't getting the scapegoat treatment the way he did in 2009. Instead, people are talking about the nebulous Jon Tenuta effect. We have a more aggressive bent this season; this is the best group of linebackers Tom O'Brien has had at NC State, and we look to bring pressure with those guys and put them in position to make plays as often as possible. The secondary remains an iffy proposition, but we've seen fewer busted coverages from them and as a result they've shaved a yard off of opponents' pass attempts.
Getting off the field on third down, as I mentioned earlier, has been a big key. And while there definitely is some luck involved in the increased turnover rate, that's also a function of a defense that's more capable of making plays.
Still, we're about where we were last season in terms of yards allowed per play; it's the other factors, and the couple tenths of a yard of improvement per play, that have made the difference. The defense definitely has improved, just not to the extent that it seems.
6. How well positioned is NC State to take advantage of a UNC collapse if the NCAA hits the Tar Heels with a large penalty? Can the 'Pack capture the football talent and fans in the state and become a consistent top 25 team? Is the state such that it will have fans rooting for the Heels in hoops and the 'Pack in Football? I ask this because there are many bandwagon Carolina hoops fans who really could care less about UNC football.
Good question. Judging by this year's recruiting class, not particularly well positioned. But the 2012 class may be the better barometer since the UNC business has only started getting serious over the last few months. The true test will be how we fare when we have a full year to use the proverbial guillotine hanging over Butch Davis's head. Whether that's enough to lure the state's best prospects away from Chapel Hill, I don't know.
Can it ever be that there will be fans rooting for Carolina in hoops and State in football? That'll be a cold day in hell.
My answers also appear at BTP so please do check those out as well.