We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of team sites to work with during game weeks. This week we’re chatting with Steven Muma, a staff editor over at Backing the Pack, SBN’s blog for the North Carolina State Wolfpack. We covered NC State’s inconsistency, quarterback Devin Leary’s success, and the ‘Pack’s resurgent defense.
TN: Let’s go big picture first, then zoom in on quarterback Devin Leary in a bit. So, what’s up with NC State this year? The Wolfpack lose by two scores to Mississippi State, then beat Clemson, they just edge out Louisiana Tech and then blow out Boston College, and then lose to a Miami team that appeared ready to give up on their season and before easily handling Louisville. What gives? I know the saying goes, ‘you are what your record says you are’ and the Wolfpack are 6-2, but they seem wildly inconsistent. Is that accurate?
BTP: I would quibble with that characterization of the Louisville game—it was a lot closer than the score implied—but to your point, yes, NC State has been a bit all over the place this season. The defense has been the most consistent unit on the team by far, but it had hiccups in the fourth quarter against Louisiana Tech and, well, for the entire Miami game.
Special teams surrendered a kickoff touchdown to start the Mississippi State game, and placekicker Chris Dunn was uncharacteristically bad against Clemson, or else that game ends in regulation. The offense can completely disappear for lengthy stretches, which is at times difficult to square with how solid Devin Leary has been. The MSU game looks more like a gross outlier as time passes—that was easily Leary’s worst performance this year.
But rarely has everything appeared to click at the same time for this team, for whatever reason. They’ve been able to overcome this because the defense generally has been there to serve as a security blanket, while the offense at least has done an excellent job taking care of the ball.
TN: If we can live vicariously through the Wolfpack for the second year in a row (ew) how good did it feel to beat Clemson?
BTP: Still feels good, honestly. I don’t care if Clemson ends up 6-6, that win is going to be a highlight of this season for me. NC State has given Clemson some tests over the last five years without breaking through, including a game it definitely should have won, so it’s been a frustrating run of futility. Extra painful if you dislike Dabo Swinney as much as I do.
Very nice win, 10/10, would enjoy again.
TN: Quarterback Devin Leary, per recent tweets by David Hale of ESPN, has had multiple TD passes and no interceptions in six straight games. Hale points out that every QB in the playoff era with a longer streak has been a first round draft pick. In addition, there are just ten Power 5 QBs this season with at least 2,100 yards and 21 TDs. Six of them play in the ACC, and Leary is one of them. So, my question is, just how good is Leary? Can you tell us about how/why he’s been so successful this year?
BTP: It’s kind of wild to think that this will be his first complete season as a starter—he took over late in the dumpster fire that was the 2019 season and didn’t flash much, then got hurt after just a few starts—and much improved play—in 2020. His performance this season has essentially been a continuation of how he played in that short stint last year, with his decision-making getting better and better.
Part of it I’m sure is the familiarity he has with the guys around him, most of whom have been in the program for years. NC State changed offensive coordinators prior to the 2020 season and the added time in that system no doubt helps. Getting a complete offseason, unlike last year, also probably helped. I think his comfort level and understanding of what NC State is trying to do offensively make a huge difference. He is not an elite quarterback at this point, but he is decisive, accurate in the mostly short-to-mid-range passing game that State leans on, and he just has a good feel for the receivers on this team, if that makes sense.
TN: What else can you tell us about the NC State offense? Emeka Emezie is still there, but who else stands out?
BTP: Devin Carter has made some incredible catches this season, including the TD grab that beat Clemson, and he has already doubled his touchdown total from last season. His ability on the outside is a real asset, though he’s had problems with drops.
Bam Knight remains a steady presence at running back, quietly going about the business of averaging 5+ yards per carry for the third straight season. He’d probably get more attention if he weren’t splititng carries this entire time. Or if NC State’s ground game were more consistently good.
TN: Last year you told me you hated the Wolfpack’s 3-3-5 defense and that their results have been ugly. You even said you hoped Dave Doeren would find a new defensive coordinator. Can you update us on the status and situation with NC State’s defense? Also, we see former FSU transfer Cory Durden suits up for NC State, and last week he had some critical penalties in the loss to Miami. Have you been happy or disappointed with Durden’s play?
BTP: I still don’t much care for it, but there’s no questioning the results this year. Even with some major injury setbacks, the defense has been excellent. NC State returned all of its key defensive players from last season and also built depth through the transfer portal (with Durden and Cyrus Fagan, for instance). The result was unprecedented depth on that side of the ball, especially in the secondary, where the team has been killed by injuries in recent years. That’s been a difference-maker for sure.
Since the start of the year, though, NC State has lost its top two linebackers, plus Fagan, plus its starting nose tackle. The attrition up front set up Cory Durden for a larger role and he has proven to be a pretty important part of this defense. The special teams goof against Miami was unfortunate but he’s been a good contributor overall.
TN: Alright, let’s see what you’ve got. Give us a score prediction for the game. Last I checked NC State is just a 2.5 point favorite and the game is in Tallahassee. How do you see this one shaking out?
BTP: I don’t expect it’ll be high scoring, but other than that, I’m not confident about anything. The Pack has been less reliable on the road and Florida State has looked a whole lot better of late. Give me NC State 27, FSU 24 I guess. I dunno. Maybe the other way around. Flip a coin.
A big thank you to Steven for taking the time to chat with us! Click here to read our answers to Steven’s questions. Don’t forget to check out Backing the Pack for your Wolfpack coverage needs.