TN: Dave Doeren took over for Tom O'Brien this off-season after the latter went 40-35 over six years. How did you feel about this move and how are you feeling now about the state of the NCSU football program?
BTP: I was all for the coaching change. Maybe it seemed strange to outsiders--I mean, this is NC State we're talking about, and O'Brien did lead the team to a bowl game for the third straight year. But when you look at recruiting, and the obvious disparity in talent between the Wolfpack and Florida State and Clemson, I think it was clear TOB was taking the program absolutely nowhere.
Fortunately I think we have an athletics director who is acutely aware of this issue, and she places a tremendous amount of emphasis on recruiting. I appreciate what Tom O'Brien was able to do with the kids he did bring in--obviously he could build teams capable of pulling off an upset here and there (sorry, guys)--but we've been losing ground for years, and that's never been more obvious than it is this season.
Gaining ground back is another story. We don't actually expect to recruit on an FSU or Clemson level annually, but we certainly can do much better than we have in recent years, and that's why Dave Doeren and his young staff are here.
TN: After suffering a hard-fought loss to Clemson on a Thursday night in Raleigh, the Wolfpack dropped consecutive disappointing games to Wake and Syracuse. What are the expectations for the final six games of the 2013 season?
BTP: I'm not sure, because we still have no bloody clue how good Brandon Mitchell will be. I expect him to be better than Pete Thomas, but if he isn't, or he gets hurt again, the outlook becomes pretty ugly.
At this point I think NC State can still find a way to bowl eligibility, but if it doesn't I won't be surprised. We need to see Mitchell play a full game and go from there.
TN: Offensive coordinator Matt Canada's attack has struggled to date, checking in at 101st in the country to date. What sort of scheme has he brought to NC State and what are his offense's strengths and weaknesses? As an aside, how confident are you that he is not an associate of Michael Vick/Ron Mexico?
BTP: The coaches like to call it some sort of mix between Wisconsin and Oregon, but uh, yeah, this particular system doesn't much execute like either of those offenses. And that's not on Matt Canada--Pete Thomas has been mediocre at best, and he has cost the team several big plays with poor throws that absolutely have to be made. The Syracuse game, for one, could have gone much differently.
We're running a lot of stuff out of the pistol formation now, which is kind of jarring after the last half decade, but I'm encouraged about the long-term prospects. Just don't have the pieces right now.
I don't think we've seen the full scope of this system because of Mitchell's absence; Thomas did the best he could under the circumstances, but the staff needs a guy with some wheels to help open up things up. That's Mitchell's game.
TN: Who are the key players to watch for NCSU's offense? In which match-ups with the FSU defense do you feel the Wolfpack could find success? Which worry you?
BTP: Bryan Underwood is the big playmaker at wide receiver--he had 10 touchdown grabs last season, and he'd probably have more than one this year if Pete Thomas had any depth perception or touch. Even so, he leads the Wolfpack in receiving yardage. Rashard Smith is a good talent as well; the problem is that both of those guys are on the small side, so they can get pushed around. Quintin Payton is a guy I really like, and he has more ideal size for a receiver, but he's not so likely to beat an opponent deep. State also has decent talent at the other skill positions, but nothing that's going to put a major fright into anybody.
I'm deeply concerned about the left side of the offensive line, as I have been since Rob Crisp (originally the starting LT) got hurt early in the year. He hasn't played since then, and the pass protection has held up okay under the circumstances I guess, but running the ball between the tackles has essentially been pointless. (Feels like that's been true for a decade here.)
If NC State can find some success, I suspect a lot of it will come from whatever added deception Mitchell can bring to the game. The Pack will have to be creative running the ball, and Underwood needs more touches in space.
TN: The ‘Pack defense has likewise struggled, posting the 85th best performance in the nation to date. What style does Dave Huxtable bring to the Wolfpack? Does NC State have the best-named tandem of coordinators in America?
BTP: That IS a good tandem of names, now that you mention it.
It doesn't seem like the defense has changed considerably in the transition from Jon Tenuta--ahem, I mean "defensive coordinator" Mike Archer--to Huxtable; we're probably blitzing less often, but it's still a base 4-3 system. The Wolfpack lost its entire starting secondary from a year ago, and we've seen some conservative coverages thus far. Injuries haven't helped matters--we have a redshirt sophomore and a true freshman starting at corner, and while both are promising talents, you know, there are gonna be hiccups.
TN: What do you think State's game plan will be against Jameis Winston and the ‘Noles? How aggressive and how successful do you think they'll be?
BTP: I don't even know where to begin answering these questions. Based on everything we've seen up to this point, not much seems to bother Winston, and bringing extra guys doesn't seem to make much of a difference. So what the heck is the right answer if you're a defensive coordinator? Hope he's just off his game?
TN: Florida State's special teams have struggled to date. How have NC State's fared? Are there any unmentioned key players FSU fans should keep their eyes on Saturday afternoon?
BTP: Place kicker Nik Sade is having a fine season (12-14 on field goals, 75.8 touchback percentage), while the eternally mediocre punter Wil Baumann is still ... not great. Rashard Smith can be dangerous on punt returns when he gets a chance--he's got one return touchdown this season.
TN: Finally, how do you see the game playing out? Any dreams of a second straight upset of the ‘Noles on Saturday?
BTP: No realistic dreams of an upset, no. As much fun as last year's game was, the thing that really sticks is the game in Tallahassee two years ago, which was a more accurate representation of the talent gap between these teams. But hey, this is college sports and crazy things happen.
Barring a lopsided turnover margin, though, NC State probably can't hope to keep up for more than a half. But there COULD be a lopsided turnover margin, and that's what I'm gonna keep telling myself.
Thanks to Akula Wolf for his answers! Be sure to head to Backing The Pack for all things NC State.