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Thoughts from Alec’s Brain: East Carolina

ECU has played more than 120 consecutive football minutes against NC State without scoring a touchdown.

East Carolina v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Alec’s brain is back for a second season to produce semi-coherent utterings about NC State football. Here is the first collection of English words and phrases on that subject.

NC State opened up its seventh season under Dave Doeren on Saturday, and it might have been the most intrigue-filled opener of any of them. The wealth of new faces, all talented but unproven, left the question marks flowing all offseason. The results, as is often the case with these types of things, were mixed. There was decidedly more good than bad though. Let’s begin.

McKay was very solid

State is obviously very confident in Matt McKay, because the coaches had no reservations with turning him loose right from the start. He looked pretty solid too. Other than one bad decision to target Emezie in coverage, he was poised, accurate, and delivered all the throws he was asked to make during the first two drives.

After those first two drives, McKay went through a stretch where he started to look more like an inexperienced quarterback in his first game. He seemed uncomfortable with pressure after taking his first hit. The sophomore quarterback overthrew four consecutive deep balls during the latter part of the first half, two of which could have been touchdowns and one of which was into coverage and should never have been thrown.

None of that was particularly discouraging though, as inexperienced players, especially quarterbacks, make mistakes in their first real game. The coaches stuck with him in a show of confidence and the young QB quickly reeled things in and delivered a dime to Ricky Person on his big gainer at the end of the half. He went on to complete 15 of 18 passes in the second half including some nice downfield throws and a 48 yard touchdown pass.

There were plenty of ups and downs, but overall it’s hard to be anything but encouraged by what we saw from McKay’s first game. He did miss on the deep balls, but he missed all of them exactly the same way, which would indicate one particular issue that is fixable. It’s better than being way off. He looked pretty dang good everywhere else, especially after he settled in in the second half. Everything is going to be fine at quarterback.

Skill positions looked good

Everything is going to be fine at running back too, where State has several young but pretty electric options. Jordan Houston looks like he was built for the Jaylen Samuels swiss army knife role, which is super exciting as the Pack didn’t really have a guy last year who they could get the ball to in space and expect a play to be made. I was surprised that Person didn’t get more carries than he did, but Zonovan Knight is going to be a hard guy to keep off the field. Watching these two guys compete for carries this season should be a fun storyline to follow, as both have their own version of star potential.

I would have liked to see the offensive line get more of a push run blocking. It wasn’t bad, but State wasn’t winning as many of the one-on-one battles as you’d hope against an inferior opponent. How the line progresses from here will be critical, because this offense can likely go as far as the line will allow it to.

Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas are in for big seasons, but Tabari Hines really stole the show with his big plays. State got him the ball in creative ways and he’s good enough to make plays once he gets it. How much dependable depth State will have at receiver is still a legitimate question mark, especially with C.J. Riley gone for the season, but the top three are pretty good.

My absolute favorite part of this game was the play calling. Other than the stupid-ass QB sneak on 4th and 2, the play calling was awesome. I’m not sure I’ve ever said that. Things were creative, designed to play to the strengths of the personnel, and most importantly not stubborn. It was a nice change of pace. This double coordinator thing might just work out.

The defense put it together quickly

The Pack’s new look defense didn’t get off to the greatest start, but it didn’t take too long for them to get it together and lock up ECU’s offense. The Pirates came out attacking soft man coverage with some short routes similar to what James Madison tried to do last season. State couldn’t get pressure on Ahlers early and it looked way too easy on the first drive until Tanner Ingle saved everyone’s butt with a forced fumble. More on him later.

The defense started to impose themselves quickly after the first two drives and Ahlers, who started the game 7 for 7, began to see his pocket break down quicker and quicker. State also pressed up and attacked those shorter routes, resulting in a good number of knockdowns and fewer opportunities for yards after the catch, and they were never beaten deep in the process.

State’s D owned the line of scrimmage for most of the game, which is far from surprising. ECU was just overmatched because State has better football players. The pirates were made completely one dimensional very quickly, and then that dimension started to fold too when the pressure started to get home, even when State only rushed three. The amount of guys that were rotated in at D-line and linebacker was an important thing to note as well. Six different linebackers played meaningful snaps. When was the last time State had that as an option?

The no longer dreaded secondary?

I hesitate to go too far for fear of jumping the gun, because I did that last year, but the secondary was . . . good?

They were certainly more aggressive. Something tells me that’s a Tony Gibson impact. Coverage seemed strong though after the first couple of drives. Ahlers was 15-32 after his hot start and was never able to beat the Pack D downfield even once, despite a handful of tries. We’ll see what happens when a team with big receivers that can hold up at the line of scrimmage comes around, but it’s a very positive start for sure.

Tanner Ingle is going to be revelation at safety. He might be the most instinctive football player I’ve ever seen. He was all over the field knocking down passes, making tackles, and doing general positive football activities. As long as he doesn’t have to line up with a receiver and man-cover him, he’s already one of the best players on the defense.

Overall, this was about everything you could hope for in this particular opening game given the context. It’s tough to use ECU as a barometer, because we can’t really say for sure what they are. We know they’re better than last year and we know they were highly motivated. We also know they’re almost certainly still kinda bad. With the context that we do have, this was a highly successful opening game. More questions will be answered in two weeks though.

Other Thoughts

  • Some of the new guys getting time on the offensive line was good to see, because State might really need those guys at some point.
  • It feels like State has a lot more versatility on this year’s offense than last year’s.
  • Somebody, probably Devin Carter or Cary Angeline, is going to need to step up and become at least a reliable pass catcher in the wake of C.J. Riley’s injury.
  • State intentionally used the middle of the field!!!!