We're very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of blogs to work with during game weeks. Our second ACC game of the season gives us a chance to chat with Akula Wolf, CEO over at Backing The Pack. We talk Jacoby Brissett, Dave Doeren, and the recipe for a more competitive game than that of a year ago.
TN: The Wolfpack are off to a nice 4-0 start in the second year of Dave Doeren's reign. How are you feeling about the 2014 team and the program as a whole? What are your expectations for the rest of the season?
BTP: Most of the optimism or pessimism this season was going to be tied to how Jacoby Brissett played, so in that regard, I feel pretty good about this team. The defense remains poor but at least the Pack can score some points. Might even score more than 21 points in a conference game this year! (That was NC State's season-high in 2013.)
Since the Pack managed to get through the (soft) non-conference portion of the schedule unscathed, I'll be disappointed if they can't find a couple of wins in conference play and get to bowl eligibility. That feels like a fair expectation at this point--barring a rash of injuries or some other calamity.
As for the overall direction of the program, I'm still skeptical of what Dave Doeren will be able to accomplish in Raleigh, though I can appreciate the extra hustle he's shown in recruiting compared to the previous staff.
TN: ‘Noles fans remember Jacoby Brissett from his brief time in Gainesville. What has he brought to NC State and how has he changed the complexion of Matt Canada's offense?
BTP: Brissett already looks like a more competent player than any of the guys NC State ran out there in 2013, which has made such a huge difference that I could cry. Last year was eye-bleedingly bad, man. Sooooo bad. But what am I tellin' y'all that for? You saw it firsthand.
Brissett is easily an improvement in the leadership, accuracy, and decision-making categories; opponents can't count on the Pack to shoot itself in the foot as often, and that's helped to open up some more space for the ground game.
TN: How do you believe the ‘Pack will look to attack the Seminole defense? Is there a match-up in which you're particularly confident on this side of the ball?
BTP: I always like Bryan Underwood against anybody because he seems to have a knack for getting behind people. Of course, for that to matter at all, NC State's offensive line is going to have to play well, and that may be asking too much.
There is not a lot to feel good about here, matchup-wise. I'll be interested to see how the Pack's running game fares after a strong start to the season. It's been a strength to this point, but it's tough to gauge how well that'll hold in conference games.
TN: The NC State defense has been slightly less impressive to date, though it is coming off of a shutout against Presbyterian. What has the Pack done well on this side of the ball so far, and in which areas have they struggled?
BTP: With first-year players sprinkled all over the place, nearly every aspect of the defense can become an adventure. Guys like linebacker Jerod Fernandez and defensive tackles T.Y. McGill and Thomas Teal have had some strong efforts, but there really isn't anybody who jumps off the TV screen in the wow-that-dude-is-outstanding sort of way.
The Wolfpack's rushing defense was poor in the first couple of weeks, as both Georgia Southern and Old Dominion averaged 5+ per carry. The GSU performance might could be excused--the ODU effort, however, not so much. They've been much better in the last two games, but as utterly impotent as USF and Presbyterian looked offensively, I don't know that it means a whole lot.
TN: Which do you believe is the key match-up when NC State is on defense against FSU?
BTP: I will be watching the Pack's defensive line closely. If those guys can't put some heat on Jameis Winston, it's gonna be a long, brutal afternoon. (Might be anyway.) That group was pushed around a lot in 2013, and not just by Florida State. It was a huge problem. I'm not confident the situation has improved that much, honestly.
TN: How have the NC State special teams fared in 2014? Do you believe they'll be able to take advantage of FSU's most pronounced weakness, its punting game?
BTP: You guys and the punting, I swear. Cracks me up because it's like everything else is set up so well, all you have is this one relatively minor thing to fret about.
The strength of NC State's special teams actually has been the punting, with Wil Baumann averaging 50.2 yards per punt. Nik Sade has been a bit of a disappointment since he's already missed three field goals after missing four all of last season, though two of those misses came from 50+ yards. He's doing a solid job on kickoffs, and with the exception of a punt return score by USF that was negated by penalty, there haven't been any big returns on the part of opponents.
Punt returns have been an iffy proposition--Bra'Lon Cherry had a bad game against USF, losing one muffed punt and letting some balls drop that he probably should have caught just to take bad bounces out of the equation. He was replaced by true freshman Bo Hines, whose hands at least looked better. I would not be overly concerned about this area if I were Florida State; neither Cherry nor Hines look the part of an exceptional returner, and they're young guys.
TN: Florida State opened as a 27.5-point favorite over the Wolfpack, which has since been bet down to around 23 as of right now. What will NC State need to do to pull the upset in Carter Finley, and what's your prediction as to how this game unfolds?
BTP: See, when I read a question like this, last year's game between these teams immediately springs to mind, and next thing you know I'm crying again and it's all hopeless. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. Okay. Whew.
If NC State is seriously going to make a run at this, the defense is going to have to find some as-yet undiscovered level of play to limit Florida State. Because even if the Pack's offense is better in 2014, even if it does put up more points, that's kinda moot if Jameis Winston is getting whatever the hell he wants all day.
The first quarter last year was a sobering testament to how much more talent Florida State can put on the field, the gap so large that a string of improbabilities is necessary for an upset to happen. In addition to that herculean defensive effort, NC State probably needs to force multiple turnovers and simply get lucky in terms of poor execution on FSU's part. Like, say, Jameis Winston overthrowing a guy wide open on a deep ball. Unforced errors.
I could see the Wolfpack hanging in there for a chunk of the first half (surely the opening quarter will be more competitive this time). Reality will set in eventually, whether it's five minutes in or 25 minutes in, and FSU will pull away. I don't know if the Seminoles cover the three-score spread, necessarily, but I don't expect them to be sweating the outcome in the final five minutes.