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Thoughts from Alec’s Brain: Syracuse

I thought this one was going to be short but I accidentally wrote 1500 words so sorry bout that

Syracuse v North Carolina State Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Bailey Hockman’s first career pass as a college starting quarterback was a 27-yard completion to redshirt freshman Devin Carter. Plays like that were at the top of the list of benefits the Pack was hoping to realize from its quarterback change, and it took one snap to get one. It was a well designed play to get Carter wide open, giving Hockman a great opportunity to make a statement on his very first pass. The execution was poor as the ball was noticeably underthrown, and the play was actually pretty close to being completely botched. Somehow, Carter found a way to make the catch and escape with a positive result. The entire game would then follow the exact same storyline all the way to the final second.

That final second was never even played because of a 10-second runoff that was the last course of a smorgasbord of offensive errors, mistakes, and comical disasters from both teams. It was truly a hideous football game, but it was a hideous football game that NC State won, and that is the only thing that actually matters.

The Offense would spark but never catch fire.

You wouldn’t know it from the score, but NC State’s offense actually did take a step forward on Thursday night. It was a baby step, but first gear is still better than neutral. Hockman hit a handful of explosive pass plays, something that had been completely absent all season, and it helped State put five (nearly six) drives together that pushed deep into Syracuse territory. It just couldn’t string together enough positive plays without some crippling error to finish drives, a lot of which was the result of a snowball effect from the lack of any consistent rushing attack. Fixing that starts at the offensive line.

The O-Line has to improve

State could not run the football, averaging barely over 3 yards per carry and getting behind the chains in the redzone because of it. State could not afford to get behind the chains in this game because it was down its starting tackle and Syracuse presented a challenging pass rush.

The second drive of the game was a good encapsulation of this. State crossed the 30 yard line and then went to Knight on two straight plays that netted two total yards. The first play could have gone for a touchdown, but State couldn’t finish their blocks on the Orange linebackers even though they had position. The second was the zone read that was derailed by Syracuse’s push, which forced the back outside. Suddenly it’s third and long and the pass rushers are coming downhill. There have been stretches of a very effective rushing attack this season, and State needs to find that more often to take the pressure off the passing game.

Pass protection will certainly improve when Justin Witt returns from injury. Bryson Speas is just not good enough at tackle, and he had a time of it on Thursday. That’s not meant as disrespect, he’s just an inexperienced backup playing out of position. Anybody in that situation against a great pass rushing end would struggle. The run blocking thing might be more of an issue with Dylan Autenrieth out for the season. State missed him Thursday and obviously will going forward.

Quarterback is not surprisingly the focus in the offensive struggles, but the offensive line getting healthy and owning the line of scrimmage a little more will go a long way for this offense.

Speaking of the quarterback

Hockman seems like an obvious upgrade, but not necessarily “the answer.” He was a bit of a rollercoaster against the Orange, hitting more downfield throws in one game than State had all season, but throwing an ugly interception on a screen pass and a should-have-been interception in the endzone that was nowhere close to anyone.

Obviously he needs to be more accurate. He had a tendency to underthrow balls, and you can’t do that when you’re trying to take advantage of the one-on-one matchups. Fortunately, It didn’t burn him too bad in this game. He was pretty solid in the intermediate stuff, but there were a few throws that had some yards-after-the-catch available, but an inaccurate pass denied the receiver that opportunity. Then, of course, you can’t throw that ball right to a defender in the endzone on third down.

Mostly, he was fine, and I can see State moving forward with him provided he progresses from where he is now. I’m still intrigued by Devin Leary, who I think pretty clearly throws the best ball on the team. His first pass to Thayer Thomas was beautiful. His second should have been a big gainer also, but it was a hair overthrown. You can’t take much away from that one series, which is why the whole “one drive” thing makes no sense to me. It’s not a real opportunity if a mistake he wasn’t responsible for (Hockman against Ball State: dropped pass for interception, Leary: holding penalty) derails the drive, so what exactly is the point?

Defense do good football sports tackle play

Louis Acceus is currently running unblocked all the way to New York to sack Tommy DeVito one more time. The defense was so so so good, especially up front. State did a better job disguising its linebacker pressures in this game than the FSU game and WVU game, and clearly Syracuse had a harder time adjusting to it than the aforementioned opponents. That’s credit to the coaches and the reason why Acceus is already in Pennsylvania and has still not been touched. I’ll let you know when he gets there. There are still big plays to be had against this secondary, but not if the quarterback ends up on the ground still holding the ball. Shoutout to the defensive coaches for coming up with the “sack the quarterback every play” gameplan. It worked.

I thought the secondary played admirably too. No receivers were flying around the field as if they were invisible to the defense. Cornerback was the most vulnerable position on the team coming into the season, so naturally, that’s where all the injuries have to be. The unit has been serviceable despite all that though. The biggest critique, and we saw some of this on Thursday, is that they still don’t play the ball well. This led to some PI calls and a play involving Malik Dunlap that probably should have been a PI call, but DeVito wasn’t finding wide open guys, and that’s a positive development.

It’s early, but State could be looking at a very strong defensive unit for a couple of years coming up here. The defensive line is obviously loaded with young talent, and State is currently rolling out six linebackers that are making plays, none of which are seniors and four of which are underclassman. That’s kind of terrifying. If State can shore up some of the traditionally weak points in its secondary, and there are plenty of exciting young players there too, this could be a pretty menacing defense for years to come.

Final Take

Thursday night games are always great recruiting and perception building opportunities. State had a chance to run an ACC team out of the stadium early and make a statement on national TV, but it couldn’t really do that. Instead, it let Syracuse hang around when it clearly didn’t want to and almost lost. This wasn’t a game that inspired a ton of confidence, but this was a game that NC State won, and that was the only thing that this game absolutely had to be. So while it was ugly and gross and super dumb, It was a game that got NC State to 4-2, so it was good.

Going Forward

Boston College becomes an enormously important football game now. It’s definitely winnable, and doing so would push State above .500 in the ACC despite the appearance of a struggling team. It’s critical because Jamie Newman/Sam Hartman and their eight foot tall receivers will probably eat State alive and the Pack has little chance against Clemson. Beating BC guarantees 5 wins going into the final stretch, which in turn guarantees at least a realistic chance of getting 7 wins. That would feel like overachieving given how this season has gone so far.

Other notes

  • I criticized the line and quarterback for State failing to finish drives. I should mention that there was also a dropped touchdown pass. That should stop.
  • Dave Doeren wins the award for the stupidest timeout of the year with the one at the end of the first half. This is a different game if the Syracuse kicker makes that field goal. (Correction: I did not consider that State was trying to set up a punt block, which makes a lot more sense as something worth gambling on. Look at me. I am the idiot now.)
  • Syracuse is terrible.
  • Extremely curious to see what State does with Devin Leary and if Thursday warranted another opportunity or if Hockman is the guy now.
  • Chris Dunn is a magnificent human. This exact game is 100% a loss with the kicking unit of two years ago.
  • Keyon Lesane is going to be something good.