You might not know it by perusing the negativity in the comment sections on our fine clownblogging outfit, but NC State won a football game against formerly-ranked Syracuse Thursday night, covering the spread in the process. Here are three reasons why you should be happy about it:
1) The defense is good. State continues to hold all of its opponents (not named West Virginia) to well under their average yards per play. Cuse came in averaging 5.1 yards per play but managed just 4.5 yards per snap against the Pack. On the season, the Pack are allowing 4.6 yards per play, a mark good for 20th in the country (a mere two hundredths of a yard behind some scrub team called Alabama). Let’s look at the numbers: State is 4th nationally in yards per rush allowed (2.3), 5th in sacks per game (4.33), 6th in rushing yards allowed per game (66.7), 21st in tackles for loss per game (7.83), 25th in points allowed per game (19.0), and 25th in opponents’ third-down conversion rate (31.9%). Louis Acceus had 10 tackles, including three sacks, and Larrell Murchison added two more to help State record eight sacks for the second straight week. Fourteen was the previous high for the program in back-to-back games. Murchison is third in the FBS individually with seven sacks on the season.
Sure, an injury-decimated cornerback position has occasionally been victimized by the big play or pass interference penalties, but that’s a product of a scheme designed to stuff the run and pressure the quarterback. The result of leaving the CBs on an island has been a lot of negative plays that get offenses off schedule, and right now the gambling aggression is paying off more times than not.
2) We have a kicking game. And I’m not even talking about Christopher Dunn. Trenton Gill is ninth in the nation with an average of 47.5 yards per punt. To put that in perspective, A.J. Cole made the Raiders after averaging 42.4 yards per kick a season ago. Gill, who is also in the top 25 in average kickoff distance, is killing it. Of course, Dunn has been just fine, nailing 13 of 16 field goals with all of his misses being from beyond 40 yards. He’s 36 of 42 (85.7%) in his young career and will be State’s all-time leading scorer by his career’s end. Both these dudes are just sophomores.
3) Bailey Hockman reminds me of a young Russell Wilson. Russ and his fancy Super Bowl ring struggled mightily early in his career, losing his first five starts against Power 5 competition. He completed less than 50% of his throws in five of 11 starts in his first season as a starter. He did protect the ball much better than Hockman, getting picked just once compared to 17 TDs, and of course he was much more of a threat with his legs. But it’s not the less than stellar stat lines or their athleticism that inspires my comparison. It’s the pocket awareness, or lack thereof. The Notorious TOB constantly lamented Wilson’s tendency to tuck the ball and try to run around the end, even when there was a pocket, like he was still playing against high schoolers. Receivers’ routes are obviously not designed for a QB running for his life, so the chance of a successful forward pass is limited as soon as the QB escapes the pocket and runs for his life. Even Wilson rarely got the edge against fast defenses, and Hockman won’t either. It took Wilson a long time to feel pressure, to keep his eyes downfield, to slide to find a lane to pass through, to step up in the pocket rather than try to win with his legs. You don’t have to be athletic to do any of the above—just look at Philip Rivers or Tom Brady—but it does take experience. There’s really no way to accurately simulate a real pass rush where the defense is trying to rip your head off with that green jersey on in practice. I’m not suggesting Hockman is going to be Russell Wilson someday, but, if he can improve his pocket awareness, he can improve very quickly. Hang in there, buddy. Make plays with your head and arm.
The good news is that the defense is playing well enough to hold down the fort while Hockman (or insert other QB’s name of your choice) figures it out. The good news is the special teams play is good enough to win at the margins while Hockman (or insert QB’s name of your choice) figures it out. We’re closer than y’all think.