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Film Room - Spooky fourth quarter haunts the Cardinals

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Wolfpack howl their way to keep pace in the Atlantic

NCAA Football: Louisville at North Carolina State Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

I have to admit, I picked NC State to lose the game against Louisville because I wasn’t sure how they would recover from last week’s extremely tough loss to Miami. They were in that game up until the end, it must have been a tough one to swallow. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised that the Wolfpack rallied back given how much of my last Film Room post was giving them props for sticking with it and staying in contention for the win.

It was clear that the game against Louisville would be a litmus test for the coaching staff’s ability to get the players in the right frame of mind to play a tough game Saturday night. It definitely helped to not be playing on the road. The travel schedule seemed to have been wearing on them.

I felt oddly confident after seeing them on the sideline right before kickoff. Dave Doeren has been big on sideline energy this season and I have to agree. You can get a sense of where a team is at by how much energy they’re bringing just before the game starts. I like this focus on pregame energy. Once I saw this I thought, “okay, they’re mentally back, but can they stay locked in?”

Even as the game was close for three quarters, this weird confident feeling continued throughout. This feeling is new, and I’m not sure I like it yet. I felt confident they’d pull out the win against Miami, and was really let down when they didn’t close the deal.

This helped:

He’s motivating his team into the fourth quarter by driving a boss hog. Devin Leary was en fuego in the fourth quarter. As you can see, the team was down 10-7 after three quarters. That’s when Leary lit the fuze, going 7 for 8 and 123 yards, three of those being touchdowns. What a fun night!

Let’s go to the video tape!


  1. We know that Malik Cunningham is not Lamar Jackson. But he does a lot of the same things that give you heartburn watching him play. Dave Doeren said it best after the game, “I like watching him play but hate playing against him.”

We can admit that when we saw this pass we all collectively tensed up, seemed like it was going to be a long night.

Looking at it again, it seems like Derrek Pitts thought he was getting the interceptino. This looks like one of those pop flies that drops in front of you at the last second when you think you have it tracked the whole way. The ball came in just short and the receiver made a great catch. It was a good play in double coverage, tip of the hat.


2. We can feel better about that long pass knowing the defense settled in locked in this goal line stand. Drake Thomas said after the game he assumed the full responsibility of leading the defense after Isaiah Moore went down, and boy oh boy did he have himself a game. He didn’t bite on Cunninghams’s pump fakes or little jukes, stayed home and got a great TFL.

The whole field clears to the left to the point that it is not an understatement to say if Drake wasn’t in position on this play, then Cunningham strolls into the endzone. I’ve watched his pursuit in the tackle 100 times and it’s still great to see.

Break out the Drako.

Throughout this season, one of the pleasures of watching this defense has been watching all the hats to the ball. They took a collective responsibility to not let one guy tear them apart. Watch Shyheim Battle at the top drop into coverage, but keep an eye on the QB. As soon as he sees he crosses the line of scrimmage he takes off towards him.

Shyheim Battle put a HIT on Cunningham. Dude stumbled back and I don’t know how he recovered enough to reorient himself toward the goal line. I would still be lying on the field. This is like those old school Pistons teams, where if you were going to go into the paint they’d make you regret it and you’ll think twice next time.

Close but not close enough. Sorry not sorry.

Sometimes the hardest kicks are the easiest kicks. We’ve been there, sorry dude. The offense didn’t do him a ton of favors with giving him a ball placement all the way near the right hash. This was a great defensive stand after that long pass.


3. Devin Leary started heating up the cooking. He was mostly simmering the stew and it came to a boil in the fourth quarter. The offensive line gave him plenty of time and delivered a ball on point to the outside for Emeka Emezie. He made a great catch through contact. It’s been impressive watching him improve the pure strength of his catches year over year.

The coaches knew they went away from Emezie for no real reason last week, so they fed the vet against Louisville. And he flexxed on them.

Screen pass to Ricky Person. Great play design. Screen to the right got everyone going that way but he curled back to the left and got a lead blocker to get the remaining LB that was spying. Also, the receivers held their blocks down field to clear out tons of space.

This set up a great first touchdown. Ever since last year’s game against Pitt, Leary has shown his ability to throw an accurate back shoulder pass. It’s so effective and hard to defend, but requires incredible accuracy and control.

Leary does the play action and then very quickly looks off the receivers to the right. This quick look gets the safety to shift right and give Emezie single coverage.

This catch requires great timing. Emezie has to release off the coverage at the right time to get his body around to catch the ball in the numbers, then turn around and make sure he’s cleanly going across the goal line with possession. Leary needs to drop the ball basically right on the goal line. It looks simple but it’s executed so well.


4. Watching on TV, it was jarring how quickly the air went out of the stadium after this play. This Louisville TD was 76 yard pass. Turns out this is Cunningham’s fourth completion of 70+ yards this season, most in FBS. He almost overshot the pass by a few inches. It was a good catch and the receiver recovered his balance to run all the way to score.

The CB blitz opened up this opportunity. I’m torn with Gibson’s CB/safety blitzes. Sometimes they get good pressure, but many times open up the remaining secondary members to cover more ground. Here, Tanner Ingle needed to recognize the go-route and keep up in coverage. I think it’s fair to expect quicker recognition for the veteran safety.


5. At the start of this Louisville drive, ESPN showed a feature with Cory Durden introducing three of the Impact Players on defense.

The three guys he named:

  1. #10 Tanner Ingle, “also known as Tingle. He’s small but he plays big.”
  2. #32 Drake Thomas, “pulling out the Drako”. It’s hilarious to me that TV producers allowed him to say, “pulling out the Drako”. They must not be big Migos fans.
  3. #13 Tyler Baker-Williams, “also known as T-Bake. He’s been here since the school opened. Since NC State started”. Savage burn.

The resiliency of the defense to come back after giving up that big touchdown was impressive. That “1-0” mentality that Doeren preaches has fully set in.

That first down stop put Louisville in a likely pass scenario for second and long. Shyheim Battle had an epic interception. Cunningham’s play style is high risk high reward, when it works it works great. Not so much on this one. The pass was ever so slightly underthrown. It needed to be more outside, where the defender can’t make a play on it. Hard to do on such a long pass, though.

Turns out it’s helpful having four star players on your team. He stayed step for step with the receiver, got his head around and put himself in front of the ball at the right time. Battle is having his best season with the Wolfpack right now, we should appreciate all his work out there. Plus, with the reset season of eligibility, he’s still a R-Freshman. Bodes well for the quality of the secondary moving forward, when have we ever been able to say that? That part of the field is in good hands. See what I did there?

Get that bone.

On the next State possession, Carter should have gotten a defensive pass interference call but overall it was a wasted opportunity to capitalize on the interception. This was about the time everyone was starting to get frustrated with the offensive output. That would continue for another quarter.


6. The defense kept showing up, though. Someone must have told Cunningham that his intercepted pass needed to be more outside, so that’s what he does here. He gets it right on the receiver’s hands, who’d gotten two strides ahead of Pitts.

I’d like to think that the receiver saw Jakeen Harris coming out of the corner of his eye. He’d kind of already bobbled the ball before Harris came in to lower the boom, but Jakeen made sure this wasn’t going to be another long pass given up.


7. Devin Leary is a gamer, and doesn’t want to give up a sack. I get it. But sometimes it’s better than the alternative, which gives me a heart attack when the ball flips up like that. That interception-less streak came close to ending right there. Phewwww.

You can see Derrick Eason had a quick second where he considered taking off and running but then thought better of it. Grant Gibson (#50) was all for it too, which is funny. He was about to give him a lead blocker.

Devin Leary did a great job distributing the ball all around the team, finishing with throws to 11 different receivers. I highly doubt the right guard was part of that game plan.


8. Speaking of mild cardiac arrests, my heart (and if I’m being honest, my cheeks) clenched up every time Cunningham got out in space. This run only went for 14 yards, but felt like more.

Vi Jones had a great game. He didn’t allow himself to get jammed on a block, then closed off the corner to stop Cunningham from getting to the sticks.

DJ scratch that record.

On fourth down, Vi Jones spied Cunningham taking off to the right, closing off his escape route, then tracked him for the assist on the tackle with Cory Durden. This was great coverage because when Drake Thomas shifted with the receiver going to the left there was an opening to run for a brief moment. Cunningham’s eyes must have gotten big seeing it, but Jones and Durden got the stop.


9. Let’s talk about the offense. This dropped pass gave us all flashbacks of last week vs Miami. I highlight this pass in comparison to the touchdown pass coming later to Pennix. Leary knows when to put varying levels on heat on his throws.

He knew he had to squeeze this ball into a tight space, so he put some extra juice on it. It hit Rooks right in the hands. That ball was moving, but the pass was still catchable. When the first downs are coming at a premium, these are must-catch situations when you’re able to get separation from coverage.

After the first quarter touchdown, here are the NC State drives before they scored again:

  1. 3 play, 4 yards, PUNT
  2. 3 plays, 0 yards, PUNT
  3. 5 plays, 26 yards, PUNT
  4. 3 plays, 8 yards, PUNT
  5. 3 plays, -1 yards, PUNT
  6. 3 plays, 4 yards, PUNT (this was the drive above)

Compare this to their final three drives, near the end of the third and through the fourth quarter, where they scored three consecutive touchdowns:

  1. 7 plays, 83 yards, TD
  2. 9 plays, 75 yards, TD
  3. 4 plays, 34 yards, TD (started at the Louisville 34)

I’d like to think that sixth drive showed the coaches something different, considering they were able to get Rooks open in space. Right after that the offense clicked in and steamrolled. The ineffectiveness of the offense was a combination of play calling and lack of push up front by the offensive line. It’s odd that the run game seems to have evaporated recently.

At the same time, the team stayed focused and locked in. As I talked about last week, this team carries a resilient confidence where they can forget the last bad play and execute the next play. Devin Leary addressed the team at halftime (as shown in this week’s ONE episode):

“The defense is balling out, we gotta make up for it. Listen, we gotta stop worrying about whatever they’re doing, they’re gonna keep doing it. We need to get better at what WE DO BEST. We’re too worried about what they’re doing, what type of look we’re gonna get, or what type of pressure.

Just do what we do! Credit to the defense, but this our half now.”

This is a QB who is coming into his own, taking full ownership of the team. You love to see it.


10. Until the offense clicked in, the defense kept showing up. Aydan White had a very good pass breakup and Pitts almost had shoelace interception. This was called on the field but reversed.

So. Close. Love the effort, though.

He did his best to sell it, almost got it.

I know, buddy, I know. Rough day at the office.


11. Louisville gets a long run then defense locks in and gets the stop. Throughought the game it seemed like this kept happening. The defense bent a lot but didn’t break. Louisville’s offense is potent, they haven’t been able to consistently put it together, but they have the ability to break big plays at any time. They’ve just struggled with consistency and finishing drives.

Case in point. Going against a lesser defense, they might have been able to get this off, but Tanner Ingle, I’m sorry, Tingle, came in like a rocket and stopped it dead in its tracks.

He was reading run the whole way. And even if it was a play fake going the other way, there was solid coverage on that side.


12. The play calling got the guys into better spaces, and Leary started dropping serious dimes all over the field. It’s great to see Porter Rooks getting more, um, looks.

Leary puts the ball at the top of the route so his guy can make a play on it. This is what Ryan Finley used to be so good at, and Leary is quickly improving with it

This was a sloppy moment for Emezie, something he usually doesn’t allow himself to get involved in. You would expect a vet to be smarter than that.

Luckily, it was offsetting penalties. A lot of times, it’s the second guy retaliating that gets the flag. Play on.


13. And play on they did. This play happens because Louisville respects the run game. This is why the “Let Devin cook” campaign can’t go too far out of balance. Watch how the fake toss stuns the Sam and Mike LB’s in place. Ricky Person also sells it with pretending to catch the ball. Meanwhile, Trent Pennix just slides behind into space, Leary pulls the ball back and lofts it perfectly for the score.

A lot of people are now saying, “You should have been using Trent Pennix this whole time!” It’s not that simple, there are a lot of mouths to feed on this offense. The coaches did say going into this season they wanted to find him a spot to be more involved. He’s always been talented, but has been a guy without a defined position. Moving him to H back was a great move.

At the same time, this was also great play design. Sending the receivers in opposing directions with the fake toss, left Pennix with nobody left guarding him.

Leary really had great touch on the ball. Compare this to the incomplete pass to Rooks earlier. That one called for a bullet, this one called for a deft hand. He just dropped it in the basket, allowing Pennix to not have to break stride.


14. There was still a lot of time on the clock at this point. Back to back 15 yard penalties gift Louisville a third of the field on consecutive plays. They simply must clean that up. They can’t get caught up hitting the QB after the throw, because this was unnecessarily rough...

wait..?

Nahhhh, son.

This guy was all of us. I’m not an expert at lip reading, but I think he was saying, “push it!” Like, the referee might be having car trouble and needs help with a push.

Next play, I guess credit to Cunningham for milking the ref’s for all he can. It’s a horrendous call, and maybe Tingle’s reputation precedes him a bit here. But come on.

Look how he drops the ball as if he got hit by a sniper. Cunningham played it well to his credit. He purposely stepped one foot out of bounds in order to draw the flag since he knew the contact was coming.

It’s the flop of the head that gets me here. You’re allowed to bump a guy if your momentum carries you out of bounds, but the referee was right there and deemed that a legitimate shove.

First and goal, Louisville. Defense calms down because of the rest of the team and the coaches getting at them to refocus.


15. Ultimately defense holds to a FG, thanks especially to an amazing play by Drake Thomas.

Drako!

This is almost an identical play to the one Thomas stopped in the first quarter. He sniffed this one out the same. Thomas covers that ground so well, taking out options for Cunningham to run either left or right once he’s out in the bootleg. And the coverage stayed tight so he couldn’t pass out of it. Thomas gets his shirt at the last second to top Cunningham from turning the corner


16. Louisville hedged the left edge here. The Wolfpack put double receivers wide right, forcing the safety to cover there. This gave Emezie single coverage on the left.

Ickey bumped the rusher just long enough for Leary to get the pass off. He mayyy have slightly gotten away with a hold, but LOOK, big first down to Emezie! The pass was high and over the defender, going towards the sideline. A great throw under pressure.

Another great catch by Emezie through contact. The ball was dropped in to just the right spot, allowing him to gather himself in bounds before stepping out.

Leary is looking so calm and comfortable with all those bodies flying around him. It seems like Ickey changed the trajectory of the rusher just enough to save Leary the hit. A QB more prone to being rattled would have backed up with the pressure coming, causing a throw off the back foot, which is always a bad recipe.

Back to Pennix for another first down. He releases from the H position again and is open right away. Leary gets the ball to his left shoulder so he can then turn up field and keep his momentum. Pennix has the speed to turn the corner on those LB’s. Devin Carter also held his block to clear the way to the first down.


17. Same drive, nearing the endzone.

Incomplete pass, broken up off the hands of Emezie. Very close to scoring here. It’s a good route and throw. Leary went through his progressions left to right in time to get the ball to Emezie.

The ball hit him mostly in the hands, but the defender broke it up. A lot of contact, it was a no-call. Maybe not enough to call interference.

Next play, back to the air again. Carter is hungry, Carter needs to eat. Carter feeds on touchdowns. Again, Louisville brought the CB blitz, and the play action made him check Bam as a runner first before going for Leary. This extra half second was the time Devin Carter needed to make his cut on the post. Dave Doeren is right when he says the offense needs to stay balanced. Devin Leary was cooking in the fourth quarter, but it’s hard to build the offense around that.

I like the way Carter plants his foot in the ground and turns for the ball. The timing on the pass puts it on his hands just as he’s crossing the goal line. Shout out to the referee for ducking as the pass whizzed over his head.

It must be hard to stand there and calmly throw a perfect pass when you see a guy flying at you in the corner of your eye.


18. With under six minutes to go, the game was still only one possession apart. One good drive by Louisville could have tied it. In third ang long here, Drake Thomas gets the first hit on Cunningham to stop his momentum short of the first down. His play was clutch, but there were a lot of white hats ready to make the hit also.

Critical fourth down stop here, everyone and their mom knew Cunningham was keepint it himself here. I don’t know if he tripped, but it seems like he started his dive a few steps too early. He almost stopped himself short of the first down. One other note is these are times when the QB could fake a run and pass to the guy open in the flat. Tanner Ingle had that covered to take that option away had it been there.


19. Eight point difference under five minutes, NC State definitely needed some points in order to ice the game. They took over on the Louisville 34 made an absoulutely bruising run for 17 yards and a first down. He barreled over a couple guys, then dragged another dude for about seven yards before finally being brought down. This came at a great time in order to eat more clock.

What a game for Trent Pennix, so happy for that man. He had the hot hand so feeding him was the right call. Person, Dylan Parham and Ickey created a big hole for him to get eight yards on a strong run.

This set up another phenomal TD throw by Leary and catch by 15th year player CJ Riley. The previous play was key to get them at third and short, and within striking distance of the endzone.

The TD play was designed for the offensive line to push to the left, which they did perfectly, while Leary and Person shift right. Person stepped up and sealed the right side, giving Leary the time to make a throw to the back line of the endzone.

The crossing routes forced Devin Carter’s defender to come off him to guard Riley as he goes into the endzone. This opens up the passing lane.

The pass was to the outside, making Riley the only person who could catch it.

The pass was such a nice teardrop. Seriously, Leary was on fire at this point. His calm demeanor when it mattered most gives the entire rest of the team confidence to keep pushing.

Including this just to show this great picture of Riley’s leaping catch.


20. Even with the game likely in hand, the defense came back out and confidently shut the door on the Cardinals. Vi Jone, with Drake Thomas closing in, stopped this third and long play short of the first down.

It came down to this, another fourth down stop. Watch how disciplined Vi Jones is in spying Cunningham. The Louisville RT should probably have stepped up and blocked him, this could have opened up a running path. But Jones doesn’t get jammed, slides right and forces Cunningham towards the sideline.

Cunningham also tries several pump fakes to try and get Jones in the air, so he could take off running if Vi left his feet. Jones doesn’t take the bait, stays at home and gets the stop. Great work by the defensive line to push through the pocket, specifically #45 Davin Vann blowing through the RG.

Ultimately, credit to the defense for making every move difficult for Cunningham. Nothing was given easy to him. The equipment manager is gonna need to use a double load of Tide pods to get the grass stains off of his jersey. He was a bit banged up in the game, but he kept pushing through it. He’s a gamer for sure. It’ll be interesting to see how he does against Clemson next week. He torched the Pack with four TD’s in 2019, so it was nice to see Leary return the favor this year.


Conclusion:

The resiliency of this NC State team can not be understated. People want to knock the coaches for the loass last week. But it’s those same coaches who helped the guys build back up after the loss, recover and prep for this game. The obvious star of the game is Drake Thomas, who got ACC LB of the Week for his efforts. Doeren agreed with a question asking him whether he thought this was Drake’s best game in a Wolfpack uniform.

Special recognition to Vi Jones, he will be needed to continue supporting the LB corps if the Wolfpack hope to meet their goals. Also Shy Battle and the secondary, also Trent Pennix having his best game, also Emeka Emezie for showing why he’s the lead receiver, also Devin Carter for shaking off a tough game in Miami, and Trent Gill for having six field flipping punts, and and and...

Get the point? Dave Doeren has been preaching complementary football all season. The loss to Miami put in check the loss of my SSUPO that had been slipping away during the four game win streak. That being said, this team seems to fully understand the path in front of them.

Next week’s trip to Tallahassee is a capital-T Trap game. It’s an absolute must-win. The Noles have recovered from their early season embarrassing loss to be just frisky enough to catch an NC State team looking ahead Winston-Salem. If the Pack beat FSU, the following week will be building to NC State’s most consequential game since the 2010 Russell Wilson game vs REDACTED. I’ll be a nervous wreck for the next two weeks. At the same time, I haven’t been as confident in an NC State football team in many many years. If any Wolfpack team in recent history can do it, it will be this one.

I’m sure that will all work out, we’ve always been repaid for our high hopes in the past....