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N.C. State—Tennessee Preview #14: Running to Darkness

Examining the N. C. State and UT running games resembles an election where you pull the lever for the lesser of two evils; it is very hard to pick a winner from two teams that finished 115th and 117th respectively (out of 120 FBS schools) in yards per carry in 2011.

The return of a hopefully healthy Mustafa Greene and the fact that the Pack at least usually ran acceptably well against average and poor run defenses does provide a glimmer of hope that the guys in red will be able to matriculate the ball down the field on the ground in the season opener against UT. But no matter how one twists the numbers, it is hard to find a silver lining for the run-challenged guys in orange.

All the ugliness after the jump.

In Tennessee's defense, the Vols faced 7 top-50 run defenses in 2011, including 3 teams in the top 6 in yards allowed per carry (Alabama, Cincinnati, and LSU). Surprisingly, they moved the ball relatively well on the ground against Cincy (3.6 ypc) and LSU (3.8 ypc); that's about a yard better than both programs gave up per carry to opponents on the season as a whole. But, UT had negative rushing totals in two games and only cracked the 4 yards per carry threshold against an FBS opponent once all year, and that was against lowly Buffalo. The vaunted steel curtain defenses from Middle Tennessee State (88th run D) and Kentucky (78th) both held UT south of 3 yards per carry. And it's not like the numbers are skewed by a lot of sack yardage; UT QBs were sacked just 18 times, 34th best in the country. And the run game could have been worse without some fortunate bounces. Though not all of the fumbles came from running backs, UT ball "handlers" put it on the turf 26 times last season (only 21 teams coughed it up more), but miraculously lost just 6, for a national best 76.9% recovery rate. The Vols better protect the ball better, as they cannot hope to lead the nation in recovering their own fumbles for a second straight season.

Adding to the sadness for UT, Tauren Poole, a 1,000-yard rusher 5-yard-per-carry guy in 2010 who slumped to 693 and 3.7 ypc a year ago, has exhausted his eligibility and is trying to latch on with the Panthers as an undrafted free agent. Poole was projected to get drafted before his senior year, so the UT OL owes him some cash money. If the Vols are going to improve their run game, they will have to do so with heralded but untested backs Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal, and they will have to do it with basically the same OL.

Lane (6-0, 205 SO) played in all 12 games a year ago and matched Poole's lack of production whenever he got the opportunity, rushing 75 times for 280 yards and an identical 3.7 ypc. He did haul in 17 receptions for 161 yards, an impressive-for-an-RB average of 9.5 yards per reception. Lane had a pair of scores on the ground and through the air, though half of those scores came in the opener against FCS opponent Montana. Lane was a highly touted 4-star/ESPN 150 kid out of Florida, so the possibility exists that he could take a huge step forward in his second season.

Neal (5-11, 210 JR), who split time at RB, WR, and wildcat QB last year, would seem to be the more intriguing prospect after getting 3 starts and averaging 5 ypc last year, but despite those 3 starts he only had a total of 27 carries all season, so his production may not hold up to the weight of an increased sample size. The former Georgia 4A Offensive Player of the Year was downright scary in the passing game, averaging 20.1 yards per reception, but again on a small sample of just 13 grabs (and of course not all of those grabs emanated from out of the backfield).

Return man Devrin Young (5-8, 171 SO) is exciting with the ball in his hands, but too small to be an every down back. He may work his way in the rotation as a third-down guy. UT feels so confident in its current running back stable that it brought in 3 more RBs in the most recent signing class. Davante Bourque (6-1, 210), a 3 or 4-star kid depending on the recruiting service, is probably the most impressive of the group, and it was quite a coup to wrestle him away from LSU, but he may end up on defense. Quenshawn Watson (5-9, 175) and Alden Hill (6-1, 220) look like TOB recruits in the stars department and are probably not likely to see the field until after a redshirt season.

Pack opponents were not quite as stingy as the typical D faced by Tennessee, but State did face 5 of the top 50 run cloggers and 3 of the top 9 (FSU, which ranked first, Cincy, and Louisville). Predictably, State sucked against those 3, managing 2.3 ypc against the Cardinals, just 1.3 ypc against FSU, and negative yardage against the Bearcats. Not surprisingly, State managed to win just one of those games. The one average rushing defense that State could not solve was BC's, which ranked 66th last season, allowing 4.27 ypc. Sadly, the Pack averaged 2.0 ypc against the Eagles and nearly flushed their bowl hopes in the process. Against bad run defenses, the Pack usually toted the mail acceptably, though that did not guarantee victory. State managed 4.52 ypc against Ga. Tech's 80th ranked run D and 4.59 ypc against Wake Forest's 85th ranked outfit but lost both games. When you also consider how much time Mike Glennon spent on his ass (the Pack allowed 32 sacks, 95th in FBS) and that sack losses count against a team's rushing totals, the Pack really wasn't quite as awful as it seems, especially against teams that were not particularly effective against the run.

Tennessee was not particularly effective against the run in 2010, allowing 4.39 ypc (74th) and a woefully unacceptable 4.63 ypc on first down. State averaged at least 3.2 ypc against every opponent it faced ranked 73rd or worse last year, so the Pack should at least be able to fall forward for positive yardage and avoid 3rd and forevers against the Vols. And, if Mustafa Greene (6-0, 213 RS SO) is healthy and unchained from TOB's doghouse, it is quite possible that the State run game will improve from hoping to fall forward for 3 yards while the wideouts catch their breath to becoming an actual strength.

Greene led the Pack in rushing as a freshman despite only starting one game, posting 597 yards on 134 carries (4.5 ypc) with 4 touchdowns; he added 272 yards on 30 receptions (9.1 ypr) with 2 more TDs. If the Pack could average 4.5 ypc as a team, it would go from the bottom of the barrel to a top-third rushing attack. And a yard and a half (State averaged 3 ypc last year) makes a big difference not only in the rushing rankings, but in the W-L column as well.

Greene, a former Rivals 4-star recruit and #26 overall RB, would be an upgrade to mainstay and likely starter James Washington (6-0, 195 SR). Washington is solid at picking up the blitz and protects the ball, and he has had his moments, including 3 100-yard games last year, and that included topping the century mark against a stout Tarheel D that ranked 30th against the run. But, Washington averaged just 3.97 ypc en route to 226 carries for 897 rushing yards. Greene would likely be a 1,000 yard rusher with the same number of touches. In fact, though Washington was 67th in FBS in rushing yardage, just one RB with more yards averaged fewer ypc than the Wolfpack rising senior.

Tony Creecy (6-0, 210 RS SO) will also figure into the mix. Rivals ranked Creecy as the #24 wide receiver out of high school, but the Pack staff moved him to RB, where he showed some promise as a redshirt freshman. Against Maryland, Creecy had over 100 yards combined on the ground and through the air and scored twice; against Clemson, Creecy rumbled for 65 yards and a score against what was the 7th ranked team in all the land at the time. Overall, Creecy carried 103 times for 382 yards (3.7 ypc) and a touchdown; he added 25 receptions for 157 yards (6.3 ypc) and 3 more scores, and, given the Pack's uncertainties at wide receiver, it would not be shocking to see him split wide from time to time over the coming year.

All of the Pack's backs catch the ball well out of the backfield, and to some extent the short passing game mitigates the lack of a true running game for both programs. Washington is State's leading returning receiver in terms of receptions (42). He totaled 315 yards in the passing game, averaging 7.5 yards per catch. But, carry-for-carry and catch-for-catch, Greene has outpaced his elder by half to a yard and a half per touch on the ground and through the air, respectively. Over the course of a game that adds up to a couple of first downs and maybe the difference between a win and a loss.

While the Pack spent much of last year running to darkness, Greene could be the light at the end of the tunnel. Stud QBs Tyler Bray and Mike Glennon may effectively cancel each other out, so the game may well be decided by which team can muster the least lethargic ground attack. If Greene is still the player he was two years ago, and TOB lets him come out and play, a game decided on the ground should be advantage N. C. State.