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It’s not that NC State can’t run, it’s that they don’t

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It’s the commitment to the running game that’s lacking, not the running game itself

Clemson v NC State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

A common refrain when speaking about the 2021 NC State Wolfpack offense is the lack of a running game. On the surface, that argument has merit. However, when you look in more detail, it’s not the case.

I’m here to tell you: It’s not that NC State can’t run the ball, it’s just that they don’t.

Now let me be perfectly clear here from the start. This is not an argument that NC State should have run the ball more this season at the expense of the passing game. When you have Devin Leary operating at the level he has this year, you ride that golden goose as much as you can.

This argument is merely in contest to claims that the Wolfpack running game was not sufficient enough this season, thereby forcing the offense to use the passing attack in situations where the running game would be preferred.

For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to eliminate games against non-Power 5 conference opponents. Yes, I realize that hurts the above argument greatly. Here’s how the Wolfpack did rushing the ball in those games (adjusted to remove lost yardage due to sacks):

South Florida

  • 39 carries, 300 yards, 7.69 yards/carry (ypc), 4 TD
  • Zonovan Knight: 16 carries, 163 yards, 10.19 ypc, 1 TD
  • Ricky Person: 16 carries, 105 yards, 6.56 ypc, 2 TD
  • Jordan Houston: 5 carries, 15 yards, 5.00 ypc, 1 TD
  • Delbert Mimms: 1 carry, 9 yards, 9.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Devin Leary: 1 carry, 8 yards, 8.00 ypc, 0 TD

Furman

  • 31 carries, 218 yards, 7.03 ypc, 3 TD
  • Knight: 11 carries, 104 yards, 9.45 ypc, 1 TD
  • Person: 8 carries, 41 yards, 5.13 ypc, 1 TD
  • Mimms: 5 carries, 38 yards, 7.60 ypc, 0 TD
  • Houston: 3 carries, 19 yards, 6.33 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 1 carry, 7 yards, 7.00 ypc, 1 TD
  • Thayer Thomas: 1 carry, 7 yards, 7.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Ben Finley: 1 carry, 1 yard, 1.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Demarcus Jones: 1 carry, 1 yard, 1.00 ypc, 0 TD

Louisiana Tech

  • 30 carries, 180 yards, 6.00 ypc, 2 TD
  • Person: 15 carries, 90 yards, 6.00 ypc, 1 TD
  • Knight: 13 carries, 85 yards, 6.54 ypc, 1 TD
  • Leary: 2 carries, 5 yards, 2.50 ypc, 0 TD

Yeah, that’s uhhh... That’s getting it done right there. But regardless, those are the teams that NC State should be able to run it against and run it with authority. The good news: they did.

But how did the Wolfpack stack up against other Power 5 conference teams?

First, let’s look at the raw numbers from each game (again, adjusted to remove lost yardage due to sacks):

Mississippi State

  • 21 carries, 60 yards, 2.86 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 8 carries, 31 yards, 3.88 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 8 carries, 19 yards, 2.38 ypc, 0 TD
  • Houston: 1 carry, -2 yards, -2.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 4 carries, 12 yards, 3.00 ypc, 0 TD

Clemson

  • 48 carries, 174 yards, 3.63 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 21 carries, 91 yards, 4.33 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 23 carries, 79 yards, 3.43 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 4 carries, 4 yards, 1.00 ypc, 0 TD

Boston College

  • 33 carries, 133 yards, 4.03 ypc, 0 TD
  • Houston: 8 carries, 43 yards, 5.38 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 11 carries, 41 yards, 3.73 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 9 carries, 38 yards, 4.22 ypc, 0 TD
  • Finley: 1 carry, 6 yards, 6.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Thomas: 1 carry, 1 yard, 1.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 3 carries, 4 yards, 1.33 ypc, 0 TD

Miami

  • 20 carries, 83 yards, 4.15 ypc, 1 TD
  • Person: 9 carries, 54 yards, 6.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 8 carries, 16 yards, 2.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 2 carries, 13 yard, 6.50 ypc, 1 TD
  • Thomas: 1 carry, 0 yards, 0.00 ypc, 0 TD

(I removed Pennix’s 40-yard run on the 4th down fake punt versus Miami as that was a Special Teams play and shouldn’t be attributed to the offense’s production.)

Louisville

  • 22 carries, 56 yards, 2.55 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 11 carries, 23 yards, 2.09 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 8 carries, 21 yards, 2.63 ypc, 0 TD
  • Pennix: 1 carry, 8 yards, 8.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 2 carries, 4 yards, 2.00 ypc, 0 TD

Florida State

  • 31 carries, 113 yards, 3.65 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 18 carries, 75 yards, 4.17 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 10 carries, 28 yards, 2.80 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 3 carries, 10 yards, 3.33 ypc, 0 TD

Wake Forest

  • 16 carries, 89 yards, 5.56 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 8 carries, 36 yards, 4.50 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 4 carries, 30 yards, 7.50 ypc, 0 TD
  • Keyon Lesane: 2 carries, 10 yards, 5.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 2 carries, 13 yards, 6.50 ypc, 0 TD

Syracuse

  • 28 carries, 114 yards, 4.07 ypc, 1 TD
  • Person: 12 carries, 50 yards, 4.17 ypc, 1 TD
  • Knight: 8 carries, 37 yards, 4.63 ypc, 0 TD
  • Houston: 3 carries, 8 yards, 2.67 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 3 carries, 19 yard, 6.33 ypc, 0 TD
  • Pennix: 1 carry, 0 yards, 0.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Aaron McLaughlin: 1 carry, 0 yards, 0.00 ypc, 0 TD

North Carolina

  • 23 carries, 151 yards, 6.57 ypc, 0 TD
  • Knight: 9 carries, 69 yards, 7.67 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 11 carries, 63 yards, 5.73 ypc, 0 TD
  • Thomas: 1 carry, 11 yards, 11.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Leary: 2 carries, 8 yards, 4.00 ypc, 0 TD

So if you’re wondering what the tally was overall and by player for the above games:

  • Team: 242 carries, 973 yards, 4.02 ypc, 2 TD
  • Knight: 100 carries, 401 yards, 4.01 ypc, 0 TD
  • Person: 96 carries, 400 yards, 4.17 ypc, 1 TD
  • Leary: 25 carries, 87 yards, 3.48 ypc, 1 TD
  • Houston: 12 carries, 49 yards, 4.08 ypc, 0 TD
  • Thomas: 3 carries, 12 yards, 4.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Pennix: 2 carries, 8 yards, 4.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • Finley: 1 carry, 6 yards, 6.00 ypc, 0 TD
  • McLaughlin: 1 carry, 0 yards, 0.00 ypc, 0 TD

The big glaring number is the paltry two rushing touchdowns in nine games. That’s a combination of play selection and opportunity. The Wolfpack ran the ball just 13 times in the red zone in those nine games, and just two of those attempts came from the five yardline or in. The two rushing TDs came from 15 and 17 yards out. The offense also passed the ball 341 times in those nine games compared to the 242 runs. There’s obviously a preference in the offense to pass the ball - and it’s hard to blame them when you have Devin Leary slinging it around.

Regardless, 4.02 yards per carry, while not eye-popping, is enough to be successful on on the ground on average.

The other item that jumps out is that Mississippi State (2.86 ypc) and Louisville (2.55 ypc) stymied the Wolfpack’s running game on a per-play basis unlike anyone else. More on that in a bit.

We’re going to remove garbage time plays out of the equation for the sake of a more complete picture. ‘Garbage Time’ is defined as when a game is not within 38 points in the second quarter, 28 points in the third quarter, or 22 points in the fourth quarter.

Removing garbage time runs from the equation (there were 21 for 73 yards, a 3.48 ypc average) and the average doesn’t change significantly, moving up slightly to 4.07 ypc.


Before I go any further, a few notes about these games against Power 5 opponents:

There were 17 drives without a rushing attempt (that is after removing end of the half/game scenarios where the game situation didn’t allow for running the ball) - there were no garbage time drives that did not include running plays. Those 17 drives:

  • Drive #5 vs Clemson (2nd quarter, 7-7). Result: 5 plays, 22 yards, Fumble.
  • Drive #6 vs Mississippi State (2nd quarter, 3-14). Result: 5 plays, 12 yards, Punt.
  • Drive #9 vs Mississippi State (3rd quarter, 3-21). Result: 3 plays, 2 yards, Punt.
  • Drive #11 vs Mississippi State (4th quarter, 3-24). Result: 3 plays, -3 yards, Punt.
  • Drive #3 vs Louisville (2nd quarter, 7-7). Result: 3 plays, -7 yards, Punt
  • Drive #4 vs Louisville (2nd quarter, 7-7). Result: 3 plays, 0 yards, Punt
  • Drive #8 vs Louisville (3rd quarter, 7-10). Result: 3 plays, 4 yards, Punt
  • Drive #2 vs Florida State (1st quarter, 0-0). Result: 1 play, 62 yards, Touchdown
  • Drive #9 vs Florida State (3rd quarter, 21-14). Result: 3 plays, 1 yard, Punt
  • Drive #12 vs Florida State (4th quarter, 21-14). Result: 3 plays, 43 yards, Touchdown
  • Drive #5 vs Wake Forest (2nd quarter, 6-14). Result: 3 plays, 10 yards, Interception
  • Drive #6 vs Wake Forest (2nd quarter, 6-14). Result: 3 plays, 0 yards, Punt
  • Drive #9 vs Wake Forest (2nd quarter, 6-21). Result: 1 play, 28 yards, Touchdown
  • Drive #11 vs Wake Forest (3rd quarter, 27-31). Result: 3 plays, 6 yards, Punt
  • Drive #14 vs Wake Forest (4th quarter, 27-38). Result: 7 plays, 50 yards, Touchdown
  • Drive #7 vs North Carolina (3rd quarter, 14-17). Result: 3 plays, 0 yards, Punt
  • Drive #10 vs North Carolina (4th quarter, 21-27). Result: 3 plays, -2 yards, Punt

That’s two turnovers, four touchdowns, ten 3-and-outs, and one five-play drive that resulted in a punt. Eleven of the drives came when trailing.

The excusable ones in my book are Drive #9 vs Mississippi State (less than 20 minutes to play, down three scores), Drive #11 vs Mississippi State, and Drive #14 vs Wake Forest (less than 10 minutes to play, down two scores).

“But why put the ball in the hands of the running game when they weren’t producing?” Yeah, I get it. And that’s a legit argument against Mississippi State, but not against Wake Forest in a one-possession game. Certainly not against North Carolina. Anyways, I digress.


Factoring out garbage time, NC State ran the ball 221 times in these nine games for 900 yards. That’s an average of 4.07 yards per carry. By itself, that number carries the argument. Hell, at that rate, three runs in a row will get you a first down. Keep it going and that’s a perpetual ball of success just waiting to happen.

We all know an average isn’t an all-telling figure, though. You can run the ball 25 times in a game for 105 yards, and that seems great, but if one of those runs is a 90-yarder, that means you were averaging less than a yard on those other 24 runs. No bueno, bro.

To better get a grasp on State’s ability to run the ball, let’s look at whether the play was successful or not, basing that measure off of the definitions outlined in the calculations for SP+:

First downs: gaining at least 50 percent of necessary yardage (usually 5 yards) is successful.

Second downs: gaining at least 70 percent of necessary yardage is successful.

Third or fourth downs: gaining at least 100 percent of necessary yardage is successful.

Keep in mind, a Standard Down is not a Run Down, but just rather a down where running can still be successful. For example, a 5-yard run on 3rd-and-9 isn’t overly helpful or successful, even though a 5-yard run on it’s own is a nice chunk of yards, but a 5-yard run on 3rd-and-4 gets you exactly what you need.

Here is how NC State did in terms of Standard Down Success Rate in those nine games:

  • Mississippi State - 4/17 (23.53%)
  • Clemson - 21/40 (52.50%)
  • Boston College - 6/15 (40.00%)
  • Miami - 7/17 (41.18%)
  • Louisville - 9/19 (47.37%)
  • Florida State - 8/24 (33.33%)
  • Wake Forest - 8/12 (66.67%)
  • Syracuse - 5/16 (31.25%)
  • North Carolina - 15/18 (83.33%, lol)

The non-garbage time average Standard Downs Success Rate across all of the FBS this season was 48.37%. NC State’s rate, including all games, was 47.49%. In the nine above-referenced games, NC State’s non-garbage time Standard Downs Success Rate when running the ball was 46.63%. When you consider that we’ve factored out the three weakest opponents (not counting UNC’s defense), those numbers look pretty dang good.

Taking out the Mississippi State game - the Bulldogs absolutely slammed the door on State’s running game - and that number jumps up to 49.07%.

Here is how those teams stacked up this year in Standard Down Success Rate Defense:

  • Mississippi State - 43.85%
  • Clemson - 40.55%
  • Boston College - 47.19%
  • Miami - 47.26%
  • Louisville - 48.38%
  • Florida State - 42.80%
  • Wake Forest - 51.54%
  • Syracuse - 47.77%
  • North Carolina - 52.57%

Another quick aside for a few other notes:

  • Interestingly, 70.79% of NC State’s standard down running plays happened on 1st down. The Wolfpack had a success rate on 38.89% of those plays. On 2nd down standard down runs, NC State had a success rate of 65.79%. So maybe the answer is for the Pack to avoid the run on 1st down and run more on 2nd down standard downs.
  • After removing garbage time runs, there was a noticeable decline in rushing attempts in the second half of games. That was particularly so in the 4th quarter. NC State trailed in the 4th quarter of four of the nine games (seven games, when you remove the two that were blowouts in the 4th quarter). That likely explains the numbers there.
  • NC State ran the ball the best in the 2nd quarter of games this year, with a Success Rate of 52.38% in the second stanza, while maintaining a rate of 36.21%, 38.18%, and 36.59% in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th quarters, respectively.

Now then, to take it game by game...

Mississippi State slaughtered NC State’s run game. After opening the game with successful runs on three of the first four attempts, the Pack was successful on just two of the remaining 17. Abandoning the run there just made sense.

Against Clemson, just 3-of-43 runs went for zero or negative yards while only one run went for double-digit yards (Person’s 22-yard run in the 4th quarter). That’s incredibly consistent and remarkable against a Brent Venables defense.

The numbers against Boston College don’t look good, but State started moving the ball well in the 2nd quarter even though points weren’t going on the board. In that quarter, State was successful on 6-of-11 rush attempts, totaling 55 yards. The Pack defense, special teams, and passing attack put that game into Garbage Time territory quickly in the 2nd half.

In the Miami game, State started really rough on the ground; four drives, four carries, negative-nine yards. From there on, over the next six drives (not counting the end-of-half one that didn’t allow for running the ball due to the time restrictions), State ran it 14 times for 90 yards (6.43 ypc). Not coincidentally, it was during this time that State outscored Miami 21-10 and saw it’s 11-point deficit turn into a 3-point lead. Really makes you wonder what State could have done had they committed to running the ball a little more in that opening quarter - or at least not run it in such predictable situations (three of those four runs were on 1st-and-10; the other on 2nd-and-10).

One of the reasons the Louisville game took so long to put away is because the coaching staff just about altogether abandoned the running game in the middle two quarters. After running the ball eight times over the first two drives (granted, without much success, only netting 14 yards), the Pack ran it just six times over the next seven drives that spanned two full quarters. NC State had a one-point lead at the start of the 4th quarter. Over the next two drives, the Pack ran it seven times for 38 yards (5.43 ypc) as they pushed that one-point lead to a 15-point lead. The overall numbers were ugly, but State was successful on 47.37% of Standard Down rushing attempts. That’s plenty good enough to keep moving the chains.

State committed to running the ball in the Florida State game, but just didn’t really do a great job. This is another game where the staff wouldn’t have been faulted for tossing the running game aside.

It’s debatable whether or not the lack of commitment to the run game early cost the Wolfpack a win against Miami, but it absolutely did so against Wake Forest, and almost cost State the game against North Carolina.

Against the Deacs, NC State had run the ball 11 times for 68 yards (6.18 ypc) through the first 12 drives. After Ricky Person busted off an 11-yard run on a 1st down on the 13th drive to take the Pack down to the Wake 37 yardline, NC State inexplicably abandoned the run game. Lesane had a four-yard run on 1st-and-10 from the Wake 19, then Person lost a yard on a run the next play. From there, over the last three drives, NC State ran the ball just twice (for seven yards). A commitment to the run game there would have shortened the game and continued to dominate the poor Wake defense, and likely would have resulted in a Wolfpack victory.

Against North Carolina, the Wolfpack were successful running the ball on 15-of-18 Standard Down rush attempts. Heck, they were even successful running on 2-of-5 Pass Down rush attempts, which is pretty fantastic in its own right. For some reason, NC State ran the ball just twice in the 4th quarter and had two other 2nd half drives that did not feature a rushing attempt. In a game where the offense struggled for the first three quarters, it was almost self-inflicted due to play selection.


Alright, that’s a heck of a lot of words, so what’s the summary? Outside of the Mississippi State game, NC State could run the ball, they just chose not to. Had they committed to running the ball more, maybe the games at Miami and Wake Forest would have been Wolfpack wins. Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, if NC State needs to run it, they can.