WT: Thursday night is shaping up to be one of the biggest home games at Carter-Finley Stadium in recent memory. How will Louisville prepare for what is sure to be a raucous atmosphere?
ME: Petrino said earlier that they'd dipped into some of the practice time for Kent State and for Murray State to use it for prep time for NC State. So, the first answer is they'll make up for the quick turnaround with the game being played on five days rest by borrowing prep time from lesser opponents. Second, they've used crazy loud music at practice and all of the standard stuff teams do to mimic a crowd's ability to disrupt a team. Third, take the crowd out with its own offense. Two years ago at Carter Finley they got a 68 yard touchdown run on the second possession and it took all of the air out of the crowd for a good bit of the first half. They'll be looking for points and big throws down field early.
WT: Even after winning the Heisman, are there areas of Lamar Jackson's game that you feel he has improved even more from last season?
ME: Outside of the Clemson game (I feel like I've been saying that a lot this year), Lamar Jackson has been demonstrably better throwing the ball from the pocket and not bailing out of passing plays too early. Both of those things has made him a better pure quarterback and made the offense more dangerous and well-rounded (though still not perfect by any means).
WT: Jaylen Samuels has increasingly been featured more in the Pack's running game of late, adding to his already dynamic portfolio of offensive playmaking. What will Louisville try to do to contain him?
ME: Rushing defense has not been a problem for the Louisville defense. And, to their credit, it really hasn't been because of aggressive run blitzes. So I don't expect for the game plan against NC State to be any different than it was against Purdue, or UNC, or Clemson (a game in which the defense hung around for a half or so, but then folded late). The defense has been pretty disciplined, gotten off blocks, and been sound in assignments.
But more important than any specific defensive gameplan, the single best way Louisville can slow down Samuels is the way they did it last year: score a ton of points early and force NC State to simply abandon the run out of concern for time.
WT: Aside from Samuels, is there another player on NC State that gives you the most concern heading into Thursday?
ME: It just has to be Bradley Chubb. 5.5 sacks already this year and now he seems to be heating up. Four of them in the last two games. The only team that has been able to slow down the Louisville offense has been Clemson, and they did so primarily because of their ability to rush the passer with the defensive line. Chubb is just the kind of versatile lineman that can give a still young offensive line trouble. Against Clemson, Lamar Jackson seemed to get jittery after early pressure and it impacted his throws from the pocket for the rest of the game. If Chubb can do that in a game at home, Louisville can be in trouble.
WT: Who is one player on Louisville that may not receive as much attention as say Lamar Jackson, but will be vitally important for Louisville to leave Raleigh with a victory?
ME: I started to answer this with redshirt freshman receiver Dez Fitzpatrick. After all, he's got six touchdown receptions and has played well since moving outside with the injury to Jaylen Smith. But for this game, I'm going to say Mekhi Becton, Louisville's massive (6'5, 340) true freshman offensive tackle. Becton is the nation's best performing freshman offensive lineman in the country according to PFF and they'll need every bit of what he has to offer against Chubb and the NC State defense that is so big, so powerful, and so versatile up front.
WT: Any major injuries to report?
ME: Yes, and in two directions. Jaire Alexander, Louisville's best cornerback and a dangerous punt returner has been out since the second quarter of the season opener against Purdue. Bobby Petrino said he had expected Alexander to play last week against Murray State but at the last minute he opted against it. He'll be back and that should be a very big boost to the Louisville defense that has struggled stopping the pass.
Jaylen Smith, Louisville's best and most dependable receiver, injured his wrist against Clemson and has missed the last two weeks. The injury is especially odd because he didn't leave the Clemson game, he woke up the following day feeling the injury. He's not expected to play. Without him Louisville has run more two-tight end sets or moved Fitzpatrick outside and rotated a number of reserve players and freshmen in the slot.
WT: Let's get a prediction - who wins Thursday night under the lights in Raleigh and why?
ME: For all of the objective reasons, I can't get out of my head just how easily Louisville went up and down the field against the Wolfpack last year. I think the offense will score early and make Finley beat them throwing the ball (and he won't). I'll finally feel completely free of the fear of having to eat my kid's goldfish as Louisville beats NC State 30-23.
Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to answer our questions. Again, make sure to give him a follow on Twitter @MarkEnnis.