Triangle teams headed in different directions
Posted September 26
In our web chat last week, my colleague Marilyn Payne and I discussed the unique circumstances attending NC State’s match up with Florida State.
FSU had not played in three weeks. Moreover, its players and their families endured a hurricane, so it’s not like the Seminoles spent the entire 21 days preparing for the Wolfpack. And because of an injury to starting QB Deondre Francois, Jimbo Fisher started a true freshman, James Blackman, at quarterback.
So, for NC State, the timing Saturday in Tallahassee was propitious. But let me be clear, NC State also PLAYED GREAT! As I patiently explained last night to my favorite Wolfpack fan, Melissa Holliday (NCSU ’02), I am not suggesting the game turned NC State red only because of the hurricane and the quarterback change. Still, those factors mattered. Many teams have played as well as they can play at Doak Campbell Stadium, only to come away with a loss.
How the Pack pulled it off
The start was all-important. Bradley Chubb and the NC State defense pressured Blackman relentlessly on the first two series, forcing a pair of three-and-outs. Meanwhile, the offense mounted two long drives (58 and 76 yards) against the great Florida State defensive unit that began the day third in the ACC in total defense, even though its one opponent was No. 1 Alabama.
New kicker Carson Wise made the field goal to cap that first drive. Critical. Then State finished with a touchdown on the second drive, as Jaylen Samuels made Dave Doeren’s fourth-and-goal-at-the-2 gamble pay off with a remarkable submarine-like lunge through Seminole defenders. 10-0 State.
The Wolfpack then had to absorb a strong Florida State counterpunch, as the home team quickly began to shake off the rust. Fisher inserted freshman running phenom Cam Akers into the struggling Seminole backfield. Akers provided energy, speeding his way to runs of 14 and 16 yards. Akers’ two bursts seem to relax Blackman, only the second true freshman ever to start at QB for FSU. The Seminoles thereafter mixed runs and passes all the way down the field, with Blackman finding Auden Tate in the end zone for the final 3 yards.
The 'Noles moved the ball well on their next drive. But as Blackman scrambled for a first down inside the State 25-yard-line, Chubb at the last instant forced a fumble. The ball rolled all the way to the 1-yard line where it was recovered by Jarius Morehead.
FSU drove again. This time Ricky Aguayo missed a chip-shot field goal. It was the only miss on the day for the kicker who went 4-5. But again—timing! This miss mattered. NC State kept the 10-7 lead.
The Wolfpack exploited the two miscues. On arguably the biggest offensive play of the day, Ryan Finley, working at his own 29 on second-and-12, found Jakobi Myers in space, and Myers, the former quarterback, juked FSU All-American Derwin James and then won the foot race against the other members of the 'Noles' secondary on his way to a 71-yard catch-and-run. Florida State tacked on a field goal late in the first half, but the Wolfpack carried a 17-10 lead to the locker room at intermission.
Florida State was not through, though. Early in the second half, Blackman fired a 41-yard pass to Tate, the 6-foot-5 bruiser who abused State’s smaller, younger secondary for 35 minutes. Big gain. But Tate was hurt on the play and the Seminoles were deprived of their biggest red zone weapon for the remainder of the game. This was a devastating loss for FSU—think Panthers and Kelvin Benjamin. FSU was also hurt by penalties. Eleven to be exact. The 'Noles would never cross the goal line again.
The Wolfpack clinched the game in the fourth quarter on a brilliant shovel pass to Samuels. Great call here by offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz. Finley faked a wide toss to his left, then pitched the ball ahead to the breaking JaySam, who streaked 11 yards for a touchdown.
For the day, NC State piled up 27 points and 365 yards—that’s three points and nearly 100 yards more than Alabama could get against what I believe is one of the most formidable defenses in America. But maybe this shouldn't be surprising: NC State’s schemes create more surprises and more problems for a defense while Alabama wins more or less by running over its opponents.
We saw two phenomenal performances Saturday. Chubb on defense had five tackles, two sacks, the forced fumble and who knows how many hurries on 51 snaps. He was voted ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Samuels racked up 12 receptions for 64 yards, five runs for 11 yards, one pass for 25 yards, and two touchdowns. JaySam played as brilliantly on offense as Chubb played on defense. He was not chosen one of the ACC’s Players of the Week, and I really can’t understand why.
Reboot and Refocus
So, after a couple of days of pats on the back and outright celebration on campus, NC State must look ahead to Saturday. The ever-dangerous transitive property of football will be wafting its way through the halls and classrooms of NCSU. The thinking goes, “If we beat Florida State, we should roll over Syracuse.” Trust me here. This week’s game will not be easy.
Syracuse has a unique offense. Dino Babers’ schemes, and especially his tempo, will challenge State in ways the Wolfpack has not seen all season. Even after playing at SEC power LSU, the Orange ranks among ACC leaders averaging 35 points and 464 yards per game, approximately the same as NC State.
‘Cuse doesn't have as many receiving threats this season, and even dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone in Saturday’s 35-26 loss to the Tigers. But Eric Dungey is still dangerous, throwing quick screens and short passes to the sideline before the rush can get to him. His occasional downfield strikes usually come at a time when the defense is expecting something else, and Dungey can also make plays with his feet. Then again, the defense also has to prepare for Dino Babers’ gadget plays, reverses and the ever-dangerous double pass. Of course, NC State can also throw the double pass.
Syracuse’s style puts more pressure on an opponent’s secondary, which, because of injury, has been a tenuous area for the Pack. Veteran Mike Stevens, who was injured in the preseason, might return this week, which could give Shawn Boone and his inexperienced compatriots a boost.
Expect a tense game, State fans. Syracuse’s defense is much better than last year. You can’t just outscore the Orange anymore.
Blue Devils Validated
Duke started its season 3-0 and validated that start with a come-from-behind win over arch rival North Carolina. The Tar Heels played hard and energized the crowd in Chapel Hill and actually led much of the second half. But Duke dominated both sides of the ball in the last 10 minutes to win, 27-17.
The Blue Devils should have taken charge of this game in the first half, mounting three long drives while limiting UNC to 76 yards and three points over the first 29 minutes. But Duke scored just 10 points, and after one of the Devils’ two field goal attempts was blocked, UNC quickly retaliated. Chaz Surratt hit Anthony Ratliff-Williams on two long passes in 13 seconds, the second a 45-yard scoring strike. Note here: Those two are very dynamic players. Still, Duke, instead of leading 21-3, found itself tied with the Tar Heels 10-10 at halftime.
Carolina took the lead midway through the third quarter and held it until Duke mounted a critical drive midway through the fourth. Though the Blue Devils’ wide receivers often struggle to get separation, Daniel Jones was able to hit on a 45-yard pass, and a fourth-and-5 pass. Those two plays led to Shaun Wilson’s go-ahead touchdown. Duke’s secondary, victimized Saturday by the big play for the second straight week, redeemed itself late in the game, getting a game-clinching pick six from Bryon Fields.
Next up: Miami
There are some unknowns in this week’s matchup. The Hurricanes have a new quarterback, Malik Rosier, and they have not yet played a Power Five opponent, nor have they appeared on prime-time television, which is to say most of us haven’t seen them this year. Because of Hurricane Irma, Miami’s 2017 game experience has been limited to contests against mid-majors Bethune-Cookman and Toledo. Saturday against the Rockets, the U showed some rust like Florida State. The Canes trailed 16-0 in the first half and led only 24-23 early in the fourth quarter. Then they broke the game open.
Miami leads the ACC in offense, averaging 46 points and 558 yards per game. The Canes under Mark Richt have become very balanced, with a power run game and a diversified passing attack. But this defense, at least statistically, looks a bit suspect. Miami allows 21 points per game (sixth in ACC) and 389 yards per game (11th in ACC) despite having not played a Power Five opponent. Duke, which already has three Power Five wins, has much better defensive numbers.
Miami was picked to win the Coastal Division in the preseason, but because of a real hurricane, the Hurricanes’ team is behind in seasonal development. Miami was forced to cancel the game against Arkansas State and postpone the matchup with Florida State until October. Meanwhile Duke is off to a 4-0 start for just the second time since 1994. To add to the mix, the Blue Devils’ veteran players are likely still seething from the Canes’ last-second kickoff shenanigans at Wallace Wade two years ago, which of course cost Duke a victory. This David Cutcliffe team has a legitimate chance for revenge.
There are conditions of course. Duke must get better execution from its ball-control offense. Move the chains. Score touchdowns in the red zone, not field goals. If the Blue Devils get just two touchdowns and punt six times, as happened in the North Carolina game, I don’t think they can win. But if the offense can score four or five touchdowns, I think the Duke defense, which will be facing its stiffest challenge to date, should be able to shine under the Friday night lights. Yes, this IS a Friday game.
Another fourth quarter heartbreak for the Heels
For the fourth time this season, North Carolina carried a lead into the fourth quarter. For the third time, the Tar Heels failed to hold that lead. Here is the consolation news: Those three teams that beat the Heels are all good. California is off to a better-than-expected 3-1 start and gave highly ranked Southern California a contest. Louisville is also 3-1, losing only to Clemson, and Duke is 4-0. Also, the Tar Heels played inspired defense against the Blue Devils—the best of the season by far—and they made explosive plays on offense. But they weren't good enough, and now the injury bug threatens to decimate this team.
Already, Andre Smith, Thomas Jackson, Austin Proehl, and Rontavious Groves have been lost for the season. On Saturday, Tyler Powell also left the game with an injury. The offensive line has been hit by injuries, and this unit is sorely lacking in depth. UNC coach Larry Fedora announced on Monday he will likely play some players he had planned to red shirt.
Now, Georgia Tech?
When you are down emotionally and hurting physically in the Coastal Division, the last thing you want to see on the upcoming schedule is a date with Georgia Tech. Whether at your place or theirs—and this year for Carolina the game is in Atlanta—the never-ending cut blocks and deceptive ball handling of the Paul Johnson offense will test the toughness of even the most hardened defender. Oh, and the Yellow Jackets should be highly motivated, having lost to UNC three consecutive years, including a 48-20 thrashing last season at Kenan Memorial Stadium.
In the Fedora era, UNC has beaten GT by outscoring the Jackets. Who could forget Marquise Williams and company scoring that thrilling, last-second score in 2014, 48-43? But Jackets’ defensive coordinator Ted Roof has mended many of the holes in the Georgia Tech defense. Pitt, which is admittedly a bit impotent this season offensively, scored just 17 points and needed a kick return for a touchdown to hit that mark.
The Jackets, impressively, rank third in the ACC in total defense, allowing just 264 yards per game. UNC cannot expect to win this week by scoring 40. The Tar Heels will have to find ways to slow down the Jackets’ nerve-wracking spread option and new quarterback TaQuon Marshall, who has out-gained every running back in the league to this point except Miami’s Mark Walton, averaging 128 yards per game. Stopping the ground attack will be a very tall order, especially since KirVonte Benson just set a new record against Pitt for yards by a B Back with 196. The A Backs aren't too bad, either.
The Tar Heels will need an incredible effort against the run, and then must hope that on those rare plays when Marshall throws, his passes will fall incomplete, unlike in the Tennessee game when he hit 5 of 7. Above all, the Heels must hope they don’t get anyone else hurt. Cut blocks and all.
This UNC team is headed south here in late September, both literally and figuratively. The squad will return home after Saturday’s game. But will this season see the beginning of a change in direction? Or will the Tar Heels’ season just keep heading south?