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Film Room - Passing Game Review vs UConn

This is good, let’s do this more. Can we play these guys every week?

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

You could tell Dave Doeren wanted to make a concerted effort to work out the kinks in the passing game in prep for the game at Clemson (whether a passing attack will be useful in that game now due to weather is a side issue). This plan worked out well, as the Wolfpack looked much improved in the pass game against UConn, a mix between the level of the opponent and the increased sharpness of the play.

We’re going to focus mostly on reviewing the downfield passes from this game. Let’s go to the video tape!

  1. In the last few weeks, the defense has allowed the opposing offenses to make quick progress to open games before settling down. They did that again against UConn, allowing the Huskies to get two consecutive first downs before holding on a close fourth down QB sneak. But that drive was the most forward momentum UConn had in the game, as the defense quickly settled in and stifled them the rest of the way.

For example, later in the first quarter, the Huskies attempted an ill-advised wildcat maneuver, and the Pack sniffed it right out and stuffed it. It surely didn’t help that the center dropped a turd of a snap so the play never had a chance. I just like the swarm to the ball, as has been seen throughout the season to date. The Wolfpack came out with aggression, not letting this week’s opponent or the knowledge of next week’s opponent slow them down. This is not something that can be said about State teams in the past, so for that I am quite impressed. I love how Cyrus Fagan sees the gang tackle and breaks off his coverage to run into the scrum, while Payton Wilson is trying to rip the ball out. Just no mercy.

2. Let’s check in with the running game, shall we? Who’s that, we see? Why, it’s Demi Sumo-Karngbaye blasting for a 20 yard touchdown run!

He just barrels through those weak tackle attempts. Great blocking plus a powerhouse run, and he runs over would-be defenders with ease. He’s been a true revelation this year.

3. Quickly checking in with the kicking game: Looks good, 48 yarder by Chris Dunn is very encouraging for his level of health right now.

Solid. Would’ve been good from 50+.

Having him healthy going into Clemson is great for NC State. And NO, I will not be showing the fake field goal. I don’t want to talk about it. Dunn took a shot but Dave said he’s okay. The kicking game looks good, moving on.

4. Moving on to the passing game, we obviously start with the first play of the game, a freaking 75 yard pass play for TD from Devin Leary to Thayer Thomas. Leary drops back 5 yards, so the ball goes 40 yards in the air, Thayer catches it above the defender and takes off on a 40 yard dash to the house. Actually, slightly longer than 40 yards since he’s running along the hypotenuse of that triangle but who’s counting?

Looking at the pass again, it looks a bit underthrown from this perspective. They clearly knew they were going to Thayer from the jump to set the tone early in the game, and I applaud that. I would just hope Leary won’t lock in on receivers so much moving forward. He’s had a tendency to do that this season, though he did improve in this regard as the game went along.

Thayer is Thayer. He makes the most out of these kinds of plays, that’s been his value to this team. It helped that the DB took a really bad break on the ball. Maybe he thought Thayer would miss it and he’d catch it lower? Not sure.

Not the very best thrown pass we’ve seen from Leary if we’re being honest. Yes, it’s nitpicky but when you’re looking to win the conference, you’ll have to clean up all the details. This play worked because Thayer, plus the weak opponent.

Don’t get me wrong, Leary was mostly superb in this game. His best passing performance of the year without a doubt.

After this pass, they showed the below graphic to see how Leary stacks in touchdown passes at NC State. Can you spot the #goacc moment of the week with finding the typo in this list?

Leary finished with 4 TD’s on the night, moving up to 60 for his career. This ties him with Ryan Finley for fourth on the list. He’s now in the rarified air of all-time Wolfpack QB greats. If all goes according to plan (please please please), he should be solidly in third place with an outside chance to pass Russell Wilson for second place.

5. Later in the quarter, NC State took another deep shot, trying to go for all the marbles on 2nd and 2 from the 38 yard line. This looked like an overthrow into good coverage. I don’t know if he was expecting Thayer to have created separation by the time the ball got there or what, but this seemed like pressing for the sake of pressing. There has to be a balance between taking good shots and being risky. Against UConn it wasn’t going to matter, but it will against Clemson and the rest of the ACC.

That being said, I think UConn got away with holding on Thayer’s shoulder, hard to see but pretty sure it’s there.

6. I like this Darryl Jones catch. He ran right to the sticks and Leary put the ball a the high point, one of his specialties. Jones was just short of the first down but the play itself was well executed. The recent transfer is showing positive signs of being a solid contributor on offense. Congrats on him becoming cancer free.

7. Pass to Lesane with some decent YAC, bit of a pick play with Anthony Smith going across to give a slight rub to the defender creating some space to Lesane on the curl. This type of play likely won’t result in a first down against Clemson with their faster closing speed, but this play is still a positive gain.

The pass was a bit wide but Lesane showed good hands to corral it.

8. This pass attempt to Devin Carter would’ve been a solid first down. The pass was on time and right to his hands, it just looked like the defender knocked it out. Not sure if you can fault Carter for it, but these types of quick plays will be needed Saturday, and he’s the guy needed to do it.

9. On the next play, Leary went back to that side of the field for a Rooks first down. This play is an example of why I like doing these lengthy exercises. I’ve been looking to get a sense of Leary’s timing with the receivers, and I’ve been talking a lot about his rhythm. This game vs UConn showed that when Leary is in a good rhythm with passing the ball, he tends to make better throws.

This is a 5 yard out, Leary has to throw high and towards the sideline with the receiver running away from him. It looks easier than it is but Leary hits it on time with Rooks not losing momentum.

10. Back to Rooks for a 15 yard gain after UConn got away with a horsecollar tackle on the previous play. Here, he runs a similar 5 yard out that he ran above, and Leary hits him just as well with enough time for him to plant his foot and turn up field for another 10 yards YAC.

11. I don’t mind the pass attempt here when up by two scores, since you’re taking a shot. The issue is the ball is underthrown. Lesane had a step on the defender. Put the ball a few yards into the endzone and let him get it.

Lesane has to turn back to the ball and the CB does a good job getting a hand up.

Maybe Lesane could have gone up to meet the ball at its high point but it would have been tough.

12. After taking a sack and a negligible run by Sumo, Leary reclaims ground with a first down strike on 3rd and 14 for 18 yards to Rooks. It’s a great play, but a troubling trend to be behind the sticks and many times be in 3rd and long situations requiring Leary to get you out of it. Leary does well to step up in the pocket and keeping his eyes down field. Rooks ran right to the sticks and cut his dig to the open spot in the zone.

13. Quick slant to Thayer with great timing on the RPO. The LB’s bite on the run, leaving Thayer open just behind. We have to assume the Clemson LB’s will not be as lax, as the Leary to Thayer slant works so well for them.

14. After many good throws leading up to this point, Leary has another mistimed ball. Something is definitely off with these types of throws, specifically, and it’s hard to pinpoint exatly what it is. He had Thayer open, just needed to put some more air under it like he did to Emeka Emezie near the end of the unc game for the second to last TD.

It doesn’t seem like this is a case of him throwing a bullet instead of lofting it, it’s just got a bit too much mustard on it. I don’t think it’s being overly critical when we’ve seen him make these exact throws in the past, but he’s not now.

15. Leary hit Devin Carter on 28 yard pass to the 1 on 3rd and 3. This was Carter’s biggest play of the year and it’s been long overdue.

The UConn defender took a comically soft approach to try and tackle Devin Carter, who bounced off and gathered his footing almost to say, “is that all you got?”, then took off towards the endzone.

Speaking of endzone: That’s a TD right there. He doesn’t step out and his right foot plants in the green grass, plain as day. The fact that they reviewed this and upheld it is a traveshamockery.

That’s why I’m glad they went right back to him so he could get the TD he was just robbed of (and also for Leary). Throwing in the redzone is good. This is a different look than State had on the goalline stand at ECU, which was a more traditional bunched grouping advertising the run so the defense could sell out.

This offset formation with two WR’s gives more options and forces the defense to think you’ll throw, which Leary did, and scored.

The Wolfpack took advantage of eally bad coverage here. The ball could have been higher, but good hands by Carter to get the contested catch.

16. Good route by Thayer for first down on 5 yard comeback. The slot position is a strength for this team, Leary is in a groove hitting those underneath passes. You can’t live off them, but you can keep drives alive.

17. Here is a missed connection to Anthony Smith. Similar to the lofted pass above to Thayer, this one’s on Leary. He had Smith wide open but needs to put more touch on that to give him a chance to come down with it. Leary was dropping passes like this into the basket last year.

Much has been made of Anthony Smith’s ability to come down with the deep balls. Has it been his fault or Leary’s, or both, etc. This pass, though, was all on Leary. It wasn’t a bomb, but a corner route going towards the sideline. It’s the kind of route I’ve been wanting them to get Smith to run because he can still use his speed to get separation, but Leary sailed it. Corners and posts 15-25 yards down field should be a sweet spot given Leary’s arm talent and State’s receiver athleticism. It’s also how Wake Forest was able to exploit the Clemson secondary.

18. Back to the short game, here’s a good route by Julian Gray for first down. The receivers are showing their training, as he knew right where the sticks were, secured the ball and got down to convert the third down and keep the drive moving.

19. This is why the run game is so important. UConn again bites on the RPO, opening up the midfield for nice chunk play.

Clearly, Leary’s strengths right now are the short yardage plays and these plays in the slot or the seam. His timing is spot on with the receivers.

20. Again with the quick strike to Carter. Leary basically had his pick from double slants with Carter and Rooks in the slot. If he’d let the play develop further, it’s possible he’d have had Chris Toudle open running to the back corner of the endzone.

21. Leary throws a fantastic fade here to get the first TD of Keyon Lesane’s career.

I know it seems like I’m being critical on other plays but it’s only because Leary throws just about every type of pass so well. Here, he gets the ball up for his receiver to make a play. This play will translate regardless of opponent if they can maintain this timing.

Also, the announcer started making a “Lesane in the membrane” jokes, and I’m hoping we can ignore that ever happened.

22. With under two minutes to in the first half, the Pack stay aggressive with a quick throw to Carter. Unlike last week against Texas Tech, NC State wasn’t content to just milk the clok and go into halftime. If they’re fortunate enough to be up by a score or so on Clemson in a similar scenario, it makes you wonder if they would be similarly aggressive. As many of the above plays, Leary has good timing on the short yardage throws.

The next play went to Jones on the crossing route for another short gain. Leary set his sights on Jones relatively quickly, a hair longer and he might have seen that Michael Allen was coming open in the flat with room ahead of him to run.

They go big with a long attempt back to Jones but it’s way overthrown. Good coverage, but there wasn’t really a chance at catching it. The margin for error on these passes is so small, but that makes the difference between a game changing play and an incompletion.

23. The aggressive two-minute drill comes to an end with Devin Leary throwing his second interception of the year.

Seemed like not a good play by Leary. Not sure if Thayer stopped his route short but looks like Leary didn’t notice the LB fake the rush and drop right back into the passing lane.

Toudle was on a curl, Thayer was on a crossing route. He seems to lock in on a spot. I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’m not sure Leary is working through his progressions much in the same way he did last year.

24. NC State came back down the field and had a nice attempt at a touchdown with a fade to Darryl Jones. This pass was purty, but it went right through Jones’ hands.

Really couldn’t have thrown it any better. The hapless UConn defender had zero chance of contending, but this play might also work against Clemson. You just need the receivers to do their part. It is not all on Leary, he can’t catch the passes too. Wolfpack settle for a FG here, oh wait no they didn’t they tried a fake that almost got Chris Dunn hurt. I still don’t want to talk about it.

25. Later on, Leary almost hits Rooks in the endzone. It was good coverage, perhaps he could have gotten it if he’d thrown it a tad earlier but still it was on target for a pass that went about 30 yards in the air. We know Leary can do it, he’s just gotta do it.

The drive was extended due to a UConn penalty, and it was good to see the Pack go back to Rooks for him to get his first career TD. This is the kind of stuff we were hoping for in the offseason. Get some looks with Thayer either subbing out temporarily or moving him out wide and put Rooks in the slot. Good things happen with this guy, he just hasn’t gotten enough opportunities. Kudos to him for his patience in the program, a lot of guys these days would have transferred by now. He was a highly touted recruit that has waited for his turn behind Thayer Thomas. Assuming MJ Morris is ready to step up, Rooks could be a big factor next year.

Conclusion: You have to be encouraged with what the Wolfpack showed in this game. It’s different than the Charleston Southern game, as that one was about trying to get as many guys touches as possible. This game was trying to get what was expected to be the core rotation specific looks and scoring opportunities. Ultimately, I trust the coaching staff sees the same gaps in the passing game that me, just a dude with a laptop, has been trying to point out.

Five receivers: Thayer Thomas, Devin Carter, Porter Rooks, Darryl Jones and Keyon Lesane all finished with 5 receptions apiece. Thayer was the leader with 115 yard, but that’s bolstered by his 75 yard TD play. These five guys are clearly who the coaches think will be the core of the receiving corps. They knew they had one more real game chance to get these guys on the same page with Devin Leary, and for that it should be considered a success. Playing UConn is a glorified scrimmage, the goal is to get some good reps, put different looks on tape to keep your next opponent guessing, and get out of there relatively healthy. Through four weeks, the Wolfpack have thankfully been able to go undefeated while avoiding any major injuries (knocks on all the wood). I think Leary and the receivers are as ready as they’re gonna be going into Death Valley.

I started this this post intending to talk about how all other aspects of the team seem to be humming like a machine right now: defense, running, special teams, with just the passing game needing the most fine tuning. But now it seems like that side of the game might not be useful if the game is to be played in heavy rain... so basically just ignore everything I said above because they’re just going to pound the rock for four quarters.