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Thoughts from Alec’s Brain: James Madison

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State is 1-0, which is better than 0-1

James Madison v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751 to James Madison Sr. and Nelly Conway Madison. He would become the fourth-

I am now being told this was supposed to be about a football game. My bad.

NC State opened its season with an inconsistent performance in its 24-13 win over James Madison. The Pack was outplayed for a decent chunk of the game, but was the better team when it mattered. It did enough to win, and a win is a win.

Offense

State’s offense on Saturday could be described as deceptively proficient. They only managed 24 points, but actually moved the ball pretty effectively. The drives were long and slow for both teams, and State only had eight of them the whole game, but crossed the JMU 30 on six of them and scored on four.

The success of the offense hinged almost exclusively on Ryan Finley and the forward pass. That was okay this game, because the Dukes had no answer for Finley throwing downfield. When he had time to plant his feet, his accuracy was tremendous. The ball placement on this touchdown to C.J. Riley was incredible. Riley is not open here, but a 6’5” receiver is always open if you drop the ball in the right spot.

Finley has become elite at ball placement and exploiting height advantages with his receivers

While Finley did look a little shaky throwing outside of the pocket, sufficient protection and play calling helped neutralize any need for that. He was surgical for the most part.

The only existent criticism of Finley is that he needs to be better out of the pocket, which is a place he isn’t used to operating (Sorry about the trash quality)

The receiving corps looks legitimate in its anticipated talent and depth. Thayer Thomas, C.J. Riley, and Emeka Emezie all had strong games to add to the 14 catch effort by Jakobi Meyers. Kelvin Harmon was back to making his typical circus catches. He just couldn’t keep them inbounds. This highly anticipated passing attack looked ready to meet its expectations, especially if the offensive line can gel and get close to the level it was at last year.

On the flip side, the running game struggled mightily. Gallaspy had a few nice runs, especially on the last drive when the JMU defense began to wear down, but there were far too many gains of one yard or fewer. The inefficiency forced Ryan Finley and Jakobi Meyers to dig State out of seemingly endless 3rd and longs (which they did almost every time). The Pack’s offense operated in spite of its inability to run the ball.

The offensive line wasn’t bad, but it didn’t dominate the line of scrimmage like you’d want against an FCS opponent. Obviously, James Madison is very good defensively and the unit is still breaking in new starters, so there’s no indictment to be made here. But it certainly wasn’t a dominant effort, and Reggie Gallaspy lacks the burst as a runner to maximize his blocking. State also got nothing from its true freshmen relief backs as it crawled its way to 83 total rushing yards as a team.

As of now, State should be a pass first offense with so many questions in the run game. Finley threw 43 passes on Saturday, and the number should float around or above that in the coming games. Finley and his receivers are easily defined as the strength of the offense, and State must adjust to the absence of the capacity to be a run first team.

Defense

Defensively, State lived on the edge against the Dukes. James Madison had five redzone possessions. They moved the ball with relative ease between the 20s, but the Pack defense stood up inside its 20 and made just enough plays to survive. It’s a weird game to take in from a defense standpoint, because JMU moved the ball pretty easily, but struggled to actually put points on the board.

The Pack defense was worked by short underneath routes that took advantage of soft coverage. Ben DiNucci isn’t a particularly accurate quarterback, and his coaching staff asked very little of him. He was the physical embodiment of the phrase “take what the defense gives you.” The transfer quarterback was rarely asked to throw more than 10 yards down the field as the Dukes dinked and dunked the Pack’s defense to death. State never seemed to adjust its coverage either, at least until they were forced to by JMU reaching the ten yard line.

It was too easy for James Madison to pick off 5 to 6 yards at a time. State never really challenged them with coverage. Perhaps it was by design that State chose to keep everything in front of them, and it ending up being mostly effective when it came to keeping the Dukes out of the endzone. The lack of pressure generated by the rebuilt defensive line was perhaps of bigger concern. Some nice plays were made, notably by James Smith-Williams and Ibrahim Kante, but the unit wasn’t as impactful as you’d hope. Ironically, the biggest plays of the day for JMU were all the result of pressure flushing DiNucci into scrambles that crushed the Pack on third downs. The line, like the rest of the defense, is a work in progress, and that’s fine for a unit replacing so many starters. It’ll get there. It’s too talented and too deep not to. On Saturday it was a little messy though.

State’s lack of pressure made it too easy on DiNucci

Other Stuff

As an avid complainer about play calling, I was happy to see State keep it pretty simple in that department. Not a single wildcat play was called, which should warrant a raise for all employed coaches. The Pack kept it simple and tried to take advantage of mismatches, which I had been yelling into the twitter machine for them to do during every redzone possession of last year. The goofy screen to true freshman Tyler Baker-Williams that ended in a fumble was probably not necessary, but State has to implode on at least one redzone trip to be State.

The Pack’s final possession of the game was certainly encouraging. It was a high pressure possession requiring a score and State went out and got it, which is something they famously could not do last year. The overly conservative play calling was a little shoddy, but as soon as State trusted its NFL quarterback, things worked out. Gallaspy then delivered his best carries of the afternoon and finished the game Gallaspy style, by carrying 3 dudes into the endzone.

At the end of the day, NC State is 1-0. There’s a lot to be excited about with this team, and probably even more to question, but the Pack is 1-0. If my calculations are correct, that’s as good as you can be after one game.