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Film Room - We’ve got the runs edition

I promise that’s the only poop joke

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

Another week, another win, that is a good thing. The Pack is 3-0 with a likely 4-0 start after UConn, cool cool cool. They have an all-world defense, extremely good special teams, making them 23 of a team possibly worthy of a top 10 ranking. But what is happening on offense? We are a quarter of the way through the season already and don’t have a firm grasp on the team’s offensive identity. Is this a problem? I guess we’ll see.

I can say that this game was an interesting experience. It was my first time seeing the game in person in many years, so going back to look at the tape gave a different perspective vs the feeling in the stands.

Let’s go to the video tape!

  1. The defense started out strong, as we knew they would. Cyrus Fagan has been making up for lost time so far this season, here with a third down pass breakup to stall the first Texas Tech drive. He gets such a good break on the ball from TT QB Donovan Smith. The secondary as a whole has developed such great vision for the passing lanes. It will never not feel weird to be so complimentary of the NC State secondary, but here we are.

2. Houston with a good first run but the drive stalls. It might be good for him to have some healthy competition with Demi Sumo-Karngbaye looking for lots of minutes. Not that Houston has ever needed a reason to run with passion, but you can sense he has an edge to his running. Or maybe that’s just reading too much into things. He does a good job cutting around the edge to break this one open. This is the type of play that suits him best, a counter run designed to get him into space.

It was encouraging to see the offense take a shot down field so early, but Devin Leary sails an overthrow past Keyon Lesane pretty badly. This ball went 50 yards in the air. I know it’s good to push the ball downfield, but with such little success at these max distances this year, maybe there should be more focus on shorter long shots like 15-25 yards at a time. There needs to be some middle ground between passes <5 yards from the line and literally halfway down the field. The Pack were forced to punt on this drive.

3. And yet, they get the ball right back due some clutch punt coverage. Texas Tech muffed the punt and it was recovered by Shimko, the long snapper of all people. This shows the great hustle the staff is instilling in the special teams crew. Also, that TT punt returner definitely had recovered the ball and Shimko just ripped it out from under him inside the pile. Straight tenacity.

4. The ensuing drive was run, run, run (I count screens as an extension of the running game) to set up first and goal. Then a trick play for TD by Thayer Thomas was to Devin Leary was called back due to a bad bad penalty. The play itself was a fun design, looks like Thayer had the option to run or pass depending on the defense’s reaction. They all bit on the run leaving both Devin Carter and Devin Leary open in the endzone. I like how smoothly Leary freezes as the ball gets hiked to make the defense forget about him while he sneaks to the back of the endzone. Good route by him. The crowd lost it when Leary caught it, it was so cool since we were on that side of the field.

Not good was LT Anthony Belton was WAYYY deep into the endzone. You can’t do that, big fella. The only explanation is he thought it was a run play, but come on, you can’t take points off the board like that. Apparently he was really down on himself afterward knowing the mistake he’d made and his teammates picked him back up. He’ll likely learn from that, as he’s been doing really well at that position given the unenviable task of replacing Ikem Ekwonu.

5. This offense swings between frustrating to watch and extremely exciting that it’s hard to keep up. At the start of this scoring drive, Leary was 3/7 for 12 yds before that. A pass to Chris Toudle got him in rhythm finally. Then a first down pass to Thayer, and looked like we were starting to see some. The Pack put together a solid drive capped off by a strong Sumo TD.

However, the TT players backed off at last second, for some inexplicable reason. Maybe they thought his path was cut off so he’d step out of bounds. I read somewhere that Big 12 officials are hyper sensitive about late hit penalties, so maybe they were worried about giving one of those up, but he had the first down already so that didn’t make any sense. My man just stops in his tracks and watches Sumo go by. Good on him to keep pushing to the endzone, this was a really encouraging run not just because of the touchdown, but shows that he isn’t willing to just take the big gain, he’ll keep pushing as far as he can.

6. Derrek Pitts is 6’1, going against a 6’5 receiver here. He does a great job staying on his hip and timing the pass to break it up at just the right time. It was a well thrown pass, but even better defense.

Part of the scouting report was the Texas Tech LT really struggled against Houston, and CJ Clark made that be a repeat here as he shoves his way past to get the sack. So happy for both him and Isaiah Moore to get sacks in this game as they’re rounding into game shape from their time off being injured. Savion Jackson was given a double team, making Smith see daylight to take off. But Clark was already on his tail and wrapped up his ankles before he could take off. The gain likely wouldn’t have been much anyway, as the NC State LB’s were spying him the whole way.

Pick 6! The scouting report said Texas Tech QB Donovan Smith was a talented dual threat but still green, and would throw to the spots where the receiver was supposed to be on paper, rather than throw to where he actually is as the play develops. Also, if you pressure him he was prone to making bad throws. Case in point.

Ayden White did a great job reading the QB’s eyes and stayed with the pass the whole way. it wasn’t too long ago when we’d see this kind of pass bounce off the DB’s chest. Now it’s turning into 6 the other way.

NC State now 8 straight games with an interception, the second longest such streak in FBS.

7. Another great defensive stop, tackle by Drake. We could make a LONG highlight of all the great defensive plays from this game. “Hats to the football” is personified by this Pack defense.

8. First play of the next drive Leary looks to deliver a long pass to Julian Gray, broken up by former Wolfpack player Malik Dunlap (who had himself a solid game). At least they’re trying I guess.

The problem is these shots come few and far between so it must be frustrating for the receivers. You might get 1-2 opportunities per game. If you drop it, or if the DB makes a good play, you have to sit back and watch a heavy dose of runs and screens until your next chance to catch a pass. That’s no way to get either the receivers or QB in rhythm. Leading to the next play...

This third down pass, I wonder where was it going? Did it have a mind of its own. My daughter plays softball and at least once per game will sail a ball completely diagonal of her target and I’ll be like where were you throwing that? She’ll just say WHOOPS, SORRY! But she’s also 8 and not on a scholarship to a P5 school and three year starter. I know this is simple miscommunication between Leary and Porter Rooks, but how does this keep happening? We were expecting this offense to pick up where they left off at the end of last year, but it turns out Emeka Emezie really covered up for many other inexperienced receivers. On this play, I’m going to guess Leary was throwing to the right spot, given it was third and long and the pass went to the sticks. But who knows, really.

This was too quick of a drive, plus not a good kick gives TT life going into 2 min left in the half.

9. It seemed inevitable that TT would respond with a two-minute drill touchdown before halftime. The offense did the defense no favors by not being able to stay on the field. Tech drove down the field aided by a defensive pass interference penalty by Devan Boykin. It was a bang bang play, but he got there a hair too early. I like how Pitts comes in and swats the ball away like Mutombo for good measure. Would’ve been cool if not for the penalty.

Texas Tech says thanks for the fresh set of downs and scored a 24 yard touchdown pass. Fagan must have been tired as he got juked and blown by for the score.

10. I would’ve bet you $1,000 that State wouldn’t try to push the ball with 50 seconds before halftime. Conservative play gets you hurt at some point. We know dis. The defense could get tired eventually without time of possession, which was slightly in TT’s favor at half. But that’s fine, better to play it safe, I guess. Let’s look at Devin Leary’s numbers during halftime:

Yikes. Also, penalties killed the Pack. At this point in the game, the offense had as many TD's as the defense. This should not be the case for a high functioning team contending for a conference championship.

The coaches might have been thinking they didn’t need to push at the end of the half because they have the ball to start the second half. Sooo, first drive of the half, show me something. Nope, run run pass (sack). Three and out. The crowd was very listless at this point, a very frustrated vibe hung in the air.

11. Moving further into the third quarter, Leary hits Thayer slant first down. This 11 yard pass was his longest play of the night to that point. These kinds of plays really get your attention because they seem like a breath of fresh air. A quick slant pass is a simple pitch and catch and shouldn’t be the exception, but this offense is making everything seem harder than it needs to be.

Next play: busted. Sumo clearly wasn’t on the same page. He’s the one person that gets a pass for these types of mistakes because of how new he is, and also his other plays make up for it. It was good of Leary to remember his coaching in that moment and if the RB doesn’t take the ball to quickly tuck and run to recover some yards, though he didn’t get much.

It’s hard to complain about the repetitive use of the screen pass when every so often one of these breaks free. This 19 yard gain surpassed the last Thayer pass as the longest of the game. The problem is how hard it always seems to get each yard. Sitting in the stands, you could see the formation and guess which pass was likely. If us schlubs could do it, then a defensive coordinator getting paid millions of dollars to break down film and tendencies can easily pick them apart.

Love that Sumo stiff arm here, along with his refusal to go down. He’s young but shows such a great vision for the field, the brightest bright spot for the offense through three games this season.

Jordan Houston went down with an injury (hopefully he’ll be back to full strength for the next game). There was a long stoppage to allow him time to get off on his own power. Then on the first play, NC State capitalized on a likely gap in Texas Tech readiness with a spot on pass to Sumo for a big 25 yard gain. It was one of those great plays where the crowd had an initial cheer for the catch (which Sumo almost missed), then rose another level of excitement seeing the wide open field in front of him, and reached a crescendo realizing he was going to score. Everyone went bonkers... until we realized it was a fumble out the endzone ughhh.

Another angle here. At this stage, Sumo reminds me of a young TA McCLendon in that he’ll mix in big spikes of amazing plays with really silly mistakes. By all accounts, he was really distraught on the sidelines, reminiscent of Emeka Emezie’s reaction to fumbling on the goalline at Wake his freshman year. The team picked him up as they went back to him on their next opportunity.

12. Man, it was so nice having Payton Wilson. He spent much of the night spying Smith, here stepping up for a fourth down stop. I credit TT’s aggressiveness trying to go for it repeatedly on fourth down, but ended up 2-12 on third downs and 1-4 on fourth. The NC State defense was too good at closing the door on Tech drives repeatedly.

13. The crowd was rocking at this point, the defense had just had a big fourth down stop. My friends and I turned to each other and said this is the exact spot where State needs to put the pedal to the floor and go for the jugular. Turns out the staff heard us as they dial up some Thayer trickeration on a double pass for a Sumo TD! Most encouraging is the team showing confidence in Sumo to come right back to him after that fumble.

Thayer threw that ball high in the sky and Sumo said he temporarily lost it in the lights but was set on not dropping it. Not an easy catch to make in that situation, knowing how open you are.

14. This late hit was obviously a bad call. In the stadium it was obvious on the big screen. A call like this lends credence to why the Tech players may have held up on Sumo’s TD run along the sidelines earlier.

This was pretty egregious, though. He was clearly still in bounds, but Tanner Ingle has that reputation about him, like it or not.

15. I feel like I can’t blame the receivers for drops when they don’t get enough targets. This one was on target to Darryl Jones but contested (again by Dunlap). The problem with the offense is they are dead set on establishing the run on first and second down, so when those don’t work out they are forced into very long obvious pass plays on third down. Pretty sure I saw the stat that State was averaging 9 yards needed on third down pass attempts. This is unsustainable, not sure how they are expected to see success with the average ACC teams, even looking beyond Clemson, with this type of play. This pass by Leary on third down pass went through the hands of Darryl Jones. That’s what, his first target of the game? If not it sure felt like it.

But regardless, Sumo was still running strong, making me wonder are they putting too much on him? The drives are continuously run run pass, again and again. It gives the sense of playing not to win. NC State is cycling too many players through receiver, giving each person less targets per person, and that number is even less when the pass attempts down field are so few and far between.

16. After a not so good kick, you could feel the game was potentially in the balance on this drive if Texas Tech was able to come down and score with a short field. Daven Doeren said afterward they felt comfortable the way the defense was playing being up two scores. That might work against this team, but a two score cushion isn’t enough week in and out. If they’d scored here under 9 minutes left, were you prepared to aggressively pursue a scoring drive to follow up? Probably not given the lack of passing rhythm

But the defense kept stepping up, with a big 4th down pick by Jakeen Harris.

Did the receiver just stop running his route? I’ll take it, great catch.

Ingle straight up vaulted the lineman. Man, we’re gonna miss him next year.

But taunting was called on Harris after the pick, a really costly penalty that was unnecessary. Be excited, but don’t hurt the team in your efforts to help the team.

17. Later on, the defense struck again. The third string QB came in, maybe he has the better arm? Or maybe they just wanted to save Smith with the game out of hand. It really seemed like Texas Tech conceded the game late. Anyway, tip drill! As they say, “tips and overthrows, gotta get those!”

Final play, DD called timeout to get a different unit in, including Devin Carter, to avoid a cheap garbage time touchdown (and also avoided the backdoor cover).

18. Odds and ends:

The gang stuffed runs like this all night, as Tech finished with only 54 rushing yards. This play was sniffed out and blown up by Drake Thomas timing his rush perfectly with the snap. Look how far he gets through the line to stop this third down conversion before it even started.

Agains, it is so good to have Payton Wilson back. He made it through his first full game since 2020. He had laid a big hit on Smith on the first play of the game (though the defense gave up a big play). But that first play set the tone for Wilson to begin regaining his mojo. Just look at how he spies Smith and pursues him relentlessly to close the door on a third and long run. He’s a true difference maker.

Leary was sacked twice in this game, this is concerning what with Clemson having basically four NFL caliber defensive linemen. Tech was also able to get 4 QB hurries, need to sew that up.

19. At some point we have to talk about Anthony Smith. His play and usage are a microcosm of how the receivers have been treated through the first three games. A play like this is up for debate. You could say he overran the route and count it as a drop, or you could say he shouldn’t have to slow down given he has a lead on his defender so it’s up to the QB to deliver him a ball on time and in stride.

Either way, that clearly did not happen. You can see he makes a good double move here to get past the CB.

He had to reach back for the ball. In the stadium, there was a closeup of the play a bit better than this that makes it seem like it hit directly on his hands. With the ball going 45 yards in the air, I tend to think he should have turned back to the ball like he did against Charleston Southern. It was good defense by Dunlap, but if Smith turns and rises up for the ball, he likely catches it.

That being said, are we totally sure he’s the answer at receiver? A lot of people are asking for more Smith action, because of his clear ability to get separation. I can’t say I’m convinced we have the evidence to suggest he’s ready for a steady role in the lineup, but I hope I’m wrong. There’s not much time left to wait for the receivers to start clicking, and the answer isn’t in the deep ball. It’s in the back shoulder throws, the hitch routes, the posts, the slants... you know, all the routes besides saying, “go deep”.

In the end, I point more towards scheme and play calling. The coaches are not putting the players in position to be successful in order to foster a positive passing game. Yes, there were at least four sure-fire TD’s left on the board. Even if the Pack only got two of them, let’s say the Smith catch and the Sumo fumble, would we have as much to gripe about if the final score were 41-14 instead? It’s hard to know. We’d feel better about it but that score would also be masking the flaws of the game.

One final stat to leave you with: Devin Leary dropped back to pass 6(!) times on first down all night. You could say they were just taking what the defense was giving them, the run was working so they rode it. Okay, maybe, but is that going to get the job done in ACC play? Not just Clemson but a lot of other ACC teams will be tough competition and the Pack need to be prepared to sling it. And at this point, I can’t point to anyone besides Thayer Thomas as a reliable option at receiver. Whether that’s on the players or the coaches, they need to figure it out soonest.