During the bye week, I wrote that given where the Wolfpack were at that point, a redshirt for NC State QB M.J. Morris should still be on the table as a consideration depending on his and the team’s performance over the two weeks immediately following State’s bye. It’s only been one game since then, but two things have changed.
First, NC State knocked off Clemson to put the team within one game of bowl eligibility. If Morris is the quarterback best suited to help the Wolfpack get that sixth win (spoiler alert: he is), then he should be playing no matter what.
Second, Morris showed vast improvement against the Tigers, indicating that he’s growing with the on-field experience that he’s gaining.
Clemson’s defense is no slouch. I shouldn’t have to tell you that unless you just woke up from a decade-long coma. The Tigers rank 11th in SP+ defense after nine weeks of the 2023 season, the second highest ranking of any defense the Wolfpack have played (Notre Dame is currently 8th).
Quick aside, NC State has played a brutal run of defenses this year. In addition to Clemson and Notre Dame, the Pack have also faced off with Louisville (19th) and Duke (21st). Add in that Virginia (60th) and Marshall (66th) are no pushovers on the defensive side, and it’s been a pretty daunting slate for State’s offense with UConn (113th) and VMI (FCS) offering the only reprieve.
Morris’ numbers against Clemson weren’t eye-popping: 11-of-20 (55.0%), 138 yards, 2 TD; 4 carries, 2 yards. Of course, there were a few drops and a few near misses that would have popped those numbers significantly, but it wasn’t the numbers but rather what Morris was doing that impressed me most.
In the 4th quarter with NC State trying to hold off a Clemson comeback, Morris made some of the best throws of the game.
The first of these was a 3rd & 12 play with 9:00 left in the game and State up by 10. Clemson rushed six against State’s single back formation, with Michael Allen all but whiffing on the the blitzing linebacker.
K.C. Concepcion is in the slot and runs a 5-yard slant. Morris recognizes the outside leverage of the corner covering Concepcion, meaning the safety is going to come down to cover the inside, which he does. That takes away the higher percentage play, but leaves Anthony Smith one-on-one along the right sideline.
Three items make this play for me. One, Morris doesn’t force the ball to Concepcion, even though he’s the hot hand in the receiving corps. Two, Morris steps up into the pocket into the face of the oncoming (almost) free rusher to get his feet into the throw. Three, he drops an absolute dime of a pass. What you can’t see from the above play is that Smith is running at about 50% speed for most of the route until he realizes the pass is coming his way. If he’s running 100%, that ball hits him perfectly in stride well behind the CB and it’s an 86-yard TD.
This next play is a 3rd & 9 with 6:10 to go and NC State up by 7. The Pack go with a similar formation to the previously mentioned play, but with different personnel and slight alignment changes. Clemson brings seven to the line before dropping the CB to cover Julian Gray (good idea) to the right side of the formation. They blitz the safety off the left side and fake a LB blitz up the middle before dropping him back as a QB spy.
This is a play that earlier in the year Morris is 100% tucking and running after seeing that his primary option (Gray) is not open. You can see him think about tucking it, but instead stays in a fairly clean pocket (thanks to a great blitz pickup by Kendrick Raphael) and throws an excellent ball to Keyon Lesane that picks up the first down. The throw is excellent, to the inside and away from the corner covering Lesane. It’s a hands catch that Lesane makes, but the worst case scenario is an incompletion. Fantastic decision making and delivery.
This last play is the most impressive for me. It’s a 3rd & 8 with 4:38 to play on the same drive as above. Clemson again brings seven to the line. In most of scenarios, the Tigers are going to drop one of the defenders showing blitz into coverage and it’s up to the QB to figure out which one.
In the Clemson 1-2-3 article, I mentioned:
Against a defense that likes to bring pressure from the secondary, Wolfpack QB M.J. Morris will need to identify those blitz packages and adjust to take advantage against favorable coverage.
This is exactly what Morris does above. He identifies the safety blitz off the left side is real and you’ll notice right before the snap he gestures to Juice Vereen to his left. Vereen runs an in route right at the first down line and Morris hits him square in the chest on what should have been a first down, but Vereen apparently either wasn’t expecting the ball or didn’t see it.
That’s a ball that has to come out quick and has to be accurate. It’s both of those things, plus the blitz identification and signal to the WR. This is a perfect play by Morris and a sign that he’s growing with the experience that he’s getting as the starting QB. This is, as it should be, Morris’ team going forward.