In an attempt to outlet my football-crazed blathering on someone other than my poor, suffering family and friends, I have decided that this football season the good folk here at Backing the Pack shall be treated to a new weekly series containing one hundred percent all-natural American conjecture and opinion. The aim of this series will be to analyze the sufferings of our beloved Wolfpack (or jubilations - but more than likely just sufferings) on the gridiron and discuss in three major points what looked bad/went wrong, and what looked good/went well. The format is one I have stolen from ESPNU's College Football Podcast, hosted by Ivan Maisel, which he terms "Three Up/Three Down" and which focuses on topics from all of college football. I will focus entirely on Wolfpack football, albeit with the possibility of expanding my focus to all things NC State related as I see fit (ah, the benefits of being El Presidente for Life of my own little subtropical blog series). Suggestions for improvement are welcome, as always, and the goal of the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down will be to stimulate debate and discussion to get us through each work week, so please, angrily slam those keys away and inform me of my numerous idiocies as you spot them.
Each week's entry will appear early in the week (probably Monday-ish), and aims to give us all time to step away from the heat of the post-game rage (or celebration - but probably just rage) to analyze things rationally. That means, of course, that this week will focus on Tennessee, and will, hopefully, be the last time you ever have to think about last Friday's events.
On to the Thumbs.
In the spirit of optimism (if you don't know what it means, look it up; as an NC State fan I wasn't familiar with the term, either) I will start with the Thumbs Down and then go to the Thumbs Up, a trend which I realize at the very moment that I am typing this is directly contrary to the order of the title. GET OVER IT. EL PRESIDENTE HAS SPOKEN.
1) Play Selection: Dana Bible is an individual who has received an incredibly virulent stream of bad karma from many a State fan, myself included. While not quite the bumbling fool those of us who dislike his style make him out to be, Bible's play selection in the Tennessee game seems to have been questionable, at best. Running has not been a strength for the Wolfpack in recent years - regardless, with the emergence of "Tom O'Brien's most experienced and deep offensive line in his tenure at State" one would think more ground game would be on the agenda for the Pack. According to Omega's postgame review, State averaged 4.8 yards per rush with the Creecy/Greene tandem alone, more than enough yardage to stay on schedule and ahead of the chains without taking to the air much more than half of the time. State rushed so well, in fact, that on two occasions we were able to march down the field and score thanks to the balance of our offensive attack (balanced offense - imagine that!). Dana Bible, therefore, being the crafty playcaller he is, promptly abandoned the run and gave an already struggling Mike Glennon series after series of long-developing 15 yard hooks and slants. Most telling in my mind was the play on which Glennon threw his second-to-last pick of the game, nearly sealing the deal: State needed only 6 yards to pick up a first down, but the play used three receivers all rushing 10 to 15 yards downfield and hooking out. By the time Glennon threw the football (behind timing and poorly thrown to top it all off) Tobias Palmer had lost his speed advantage and was simply outsized and outjumped by the Tennessee defender. It was a poorly executed play, to be sure, but everyone in the stadium knew Glennon was struggling and that Palmer was an undersized matchup - what would have been wrong with a short, five yard quick slant using Payton out of the slot or Watson from tight end, matchups that had been working all night and which Glennon could throw in his sleep? As usual, I left the Georiga Dome unsatisfied that Coach O'Brien's staff had, as he puts it "done everything they could to put these guys in a position to win".
2) Pressure: Over the past two seasons, pressure has been a hallmark of Mike Archer (aka Jon Tenuta)'s defense. What State doesn't always have in defensive line skill, it makes up for in crafty five-and-six man blitz combos that drop linemen and rush playmaking linebackers. This year the lack of linebacker experience is an obvious sore spot for State - Omega's postgame (see link above) discusses the stats for those guys, and while they could have been worse, the glaring issue is the lack of backfield pressure. Pressure on opposing QBs causes turnovers, which State thrives on, and the lack of pressure on Tyler Bray was painfully apparent all night. In the few cases when pressure did come, Bray threw poor passes or got rid of the ball, but those instances were few and far between and really only served to taunt me as to how effective we might have been defensively had we been able to bring more regular pressure. As it was, Bray was able to shred our secondary all night as a woeful pass rush struggled ineffectually against the Hutt-like offensive line of Tennessee.
3) Playmakers: Or lack thereof. When State has somebody step up big, State wins - when it doesn't, it doesn't win. Mike Glennon had a terrible night. He acted like a first year quarterback, staring down receivers and holding the ball long after his internal play clock should have indicated to him it was time to throw it away. David Amerson also seemed confused within the defense, getting honestly beat deep once and giving up a deep ball a second time apparently because he thought he had safety help over the top. Partially this came about because of a coaching decision - throughout the night State was dropping a safety into the box to help with the run (again, inexperienced linebackers hurt), meaning they were leaving their best corner on an island with an NFL level receiver. In the second half Amerson locked down and seemed to realize that he wouldn't be getting help almost ever, but the damage had mostly been done. Everybody has a bad night, and blame shouldn't come too hard on anybody, especially at a college level, who doesn't preform great on a given night. The simple fact of the matter, however, is that when your best playmakers don't play well, you don't win. After the game, Glennon looked sick and shaky, and Amerson was furious and disappointed with himself. I think we can trust that these guys will get it figured out and come back in a big way for the Pack when it really matters, come September 29th in Miami.
ANNNND that segues us nicely into Thumbs Up....
1) Running backs/O-line: For the first game of the season, I was pleasantly surprised by both units. Moose Greene looked to be back in 2010 form, and had State stuck with the run rather than panicking in the second half I think the outcome would have been much different. The offensive line created enough space on most plays to generate 3-4 yards of push, which is generally sufficient for any run game with decent backs, especially for a season opener against an SEC defensive front. I heard a lot of bellyaching from some State basketball fans I know after the game about how the offensive line failed to give Glennon enough time to make good throws - I just didn't see that, especially compared to recent years. In my experience, the first thing football novices tend to blame when things go wrong is the o-line, and while it may not have been a job worthy of, say Nick Saban, I thought the line put forth a good enough effort that we could have won. Playcalling really doomed us, as deep passes don't play to a "just good enough" unit's strengths - sticking to runs and short passes would have been crucial to a victory. Still, expect good things out of this unit going forward (provided Coach Bible decides to actually use them).
2) Tight Ends and Quinton Payton: It's too late at night for me to bother with looking up stats, and honestly I don't want to get that technical about it - suffice it to say, State's possession guys came up big. Quinton Payton had something like 129 yards on 4 catches, and the manner in which he did it, mismatching on linebackers while still able to go up and make catches against DB's, really impressed me. State also has a stable of big, talented tight ends, several of whom saw the field and all of whom present big matchup issues for defenses. State should really look into the two-tight end set, in my opinion, which is the same offensive scheme that the New England Patriots exploited so well this past season with guys like Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski - big, physical guys who can run routes like receivers. I've talked about this wrinkle before, and there's some really good literature out there that says that it will become all the rage in the NFL over the next few seasons for those who are interested in the more technical aspects of the game - suffice it to say, I think our tight ends could prove to be a matchup advantage over a lot of less-talented ACC defenses. Whether Bible and the offense choose to look into an innovative new idea designed not around a stuffy, set-in-stone "system" and instead around the guys you actually have, though, remains to be seen (aka, won't ever happen).
3) The rest of the secondary: Good ol' Number 1 had a crappy night. Everybody remembers that. Everybody also remembers that CJ Wilson isn't eligible because he didn't pass enough credits back in the spring. What nobody remembers is that Wilson had been passed on the depth chart anyway by guys like Dontae Johnson, Jarvis Byrd, and Juston Burris (a redshirt freshman), and that Burris did NOT get beat deep all night by anybody from Tennessee's receiving corps. Burris recorded 8 stops and 1 break up, while Johnson contributed at nickelback with 5 stops and 1.5 tackles for loss (thanks again to Omega for the numbers). The future is bright for this NC State secondary, which is one of most experienced in the nation and which really has a lot more depth than people seem to think. Looking at our schedule moving forward, I don't see any teams outside of Clemson and Sammy Watkins who can really challenge us the way Tennessee did at wideout, so I think the secondary will go back to being something we can list as a strength pretty quickly after we wash the taste of this opener out of our mouths.
Well that's it for Thumbs number one. I'm looking down and realizing I've spent the hour or so on this instead of sleeping, so it's going to be a quick read-through and publish for this and off to bed for me. Comments on what you think of this series and what you'd like to see are always welcomed, as well as discussion about the points I've raised (or failed to raise). SoTW, signing off.