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NC State Football

IPS REPORT CARD: Defense Steps Up, Offense Sinks Wolfpack

September 12, 2021
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Coming into Saturday’s game against Mississippi State in Starkville, there was plenty of optimism around NC State’s ability to win its first road game over an SEC opponent since 1977. 

That optimism evaporated quickly, as a strong defensive effort went by the wayside as offensive ineptitude and miscues on both offense and special teams doomed the Pack in a 24-10 loss. 

Let’s hand out some grades for this one. 


Quarterbacks

Outside of a strong early drive, hope that Leary would build on his mixed performance in the season opener faded rather quickly in this one. The Pack’s signal caller looked out of sync with his receivers all night and could not hit shots down the field or find a way to get the offense going. He finished the game 30 of 49 for 303 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. 

Leary had a brutal miss late in the third quarter when he had Anthony Smith down the field for what would have been a 91-yard touchdown to bring the Pack within two scores, but the QB overthrew him. It wasn’t the only open receiver he missed. He also, despite not recording an official turnover before a hail mary interception on the last play of the game for NC State, had a couple flirtations with disaster, including a fumble that was recovered by Wolfpack right tackle Bryson Speas and an attempted screen pass that was nearly picked. 

Leary eventually hit a few shots downfield late in the fourth quarter down 21 and eventually got his team into the end zone with a touchdown pass to Thayer Thomas with about a minute left, but it was a case of too little, too late. 

This was an ugly showing for the Wolfpack’s passing game. 

Grade: D

Running Backs 

Part of the issues in the run game came from the Wolfpack’s play calling - with far too many predictable runs to the left – and the offensive line, which struggled to open holes. But NC State’s running backs, after Bam Knight and Ricky Person’s monster games last week, couldn’t get anything going in this one, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. 

To add to that, Bam Knight had a disastrous fumble at the end of an 11-yard run on the Pack’s opening drive of the second half - a drive which could have cut the deficit to one score. The Bull Dogs eventually turned that fumble into a touchdown. With that in mind, it’s impossible to give the backs a high mark. 

Grade: D

Wide Receivers

While Emeka Emezie had a couple nice catches early in the game, NC State’s receivers struggled to get open and create opportunities throughout the game. Devin Carter had a couple of drops, including one on a shot play that probably would have gone for a touchdown. 

It’s always tough going against players who have the speed and skill of SEC defensive backs, but this is a part of NC State’s roster that came in with very high expectations but did little to live up to them in this game (before the game was out of reach). Emezie was a bright spot with six catches for 92 yards and a couple nice snags. 

Grade: C-

Tight Ends

The tight ends weren’t really asked to do much, with two catches for five yards for Trent Pennix and one target to Chris Toudle being their only involvement in the passing game. The Pack does use its tight ends to block in the running game, which as mentioned before, didn’t do much in this one.  

An unsportsmanlike penalty to Pennix also killed NC State’s last chance to put a touchdown on the board in the fourth quarter. 

Grade: D

Offensive Line

After a strong showing against South Florida last week, the offensive line struggled against Mississippi State’s front in this one, as it couldn’t open many holes for the run game. 

Things didn’t go any better in the pass game, as Leary was sacked four times and hurried five, though some of those were on him for taking too long to throw. Still, especially later in the game with the Pack trailing, the Pack couldn’t buy Leary quite enough time. There’s work to do here. 

Ikem Ekwonu also had an uncharacteristic unnecessary-roughness penalty late in the fourth quarter. 

Grade: D-

Defensive Line

We can definitely call this group one of the game’s bright spots. The Bulldogs didn’t try to run often, but when they did, there was no room, as NC State allowed minimal YPC on the night. 

The Pack did struggle to get a ton of pressure on Will Rogers, however, with very few hurries on the night. 

Grade: B

Linebackers 

Especially early in the game, this group did its part to help the defense keep NC State in the game throughout most of the first half. On the Bulldogs’ first three possessions, NC State did not allow a first down and surrendered just five yards. The linebackers tackled well against the run and made some nice plays in coverage. 

There was a dip when Payton Wilson was lost to what appeared to be a serious shoulder injury late in the first half (which would be a devastating blow to this team), but overall the linebackers, and the defense as a whole, were a bright spot. 

Grade: B+

Secondary 

Especially given that it got zero help from the offense, this group did about everything that could be asked of it against Mike Leach’s air raid offense. It played a huge role in the aforementioned start to the game, covering well and breaking up passes on Mississippi State’s third-down attempts. 

In the second quarter, the Pack came up with a critical fourth-down stop thanks to an excellent tackle on a screen by Shyheim Battle. The defense also made plays to give the Wolfpack glimmers of hope in the second half, including an end-zone breakup by Tanner Ingle to force a field goal. 

The secondary did break down at times, which was bound to happen against a passing attack like the one it was facing, and given the amount of time it was on the field due to the offense’s struggles. If there were any complaints, it was not coming up with a turnover and allowing a fourth-down conversion that eventually led to a late touchdown in the first half. 

But this group more than held up its end of the bargain in this matchup in allowing just 17 points (with one touchdown against coming on special teams). 

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Special teams were a big part of NC State trailing by multiple scores at halftime despite controlling much of the early stages of the game. The Pack was behind the eight ball immediately thanks to a 65-yard kickoff return by Lideatrick Griffin that saw NC State miss multiple tackles. Especially in a hostile road environment where you’re trying to take the crowd out of it early, that can’t happen. 

A rare missed field goal from Chris Dunn on a 48-yard attempt added to the early woes. While the Pack didn’t have any other glaring mishaps on special teams, and Trenton Gill got some good punts off, the errors in the first half were of the massive variety, and, while they ultimately weren’t the difference in the game, had NC State playing from behind from the get-go. 

The special teams did make up for it a little bit by recovering an onside kick with about a minute left, but the game was decided at that point. 

Grade: D-

Intangibles

NC State, simply put, did not look ready for this game. The Wolfpack had few, if any, answers for what the Bulldogs’ defense presented. Simple mistakes such as the Knight fumble and the opening kickoff touchdown are game ruiners against an SEC opponent on the road. The Pack lost the turnover battle 3-0. 

And, following the defense’s first three and out in the game, the Pack had its best offensive drive of the game, getting all the way down to the two before inexplicably calling a screen for a loss rather than just running it up the gut, and then a jump pass for Person on a trick play that was picked off, resulting in no points. 

The team also had some untimely frustration penalties, especially in the fourth quarter. 

The Pack didn’t do much right other than on defense in this one, and it certainly didn’t do “the little things” right.

Grade: F

Overall

Playing an SEC opponent on the road is never easy, but this was an awful showing by the Pack. There was plenty of optimism about NC State’s chances, but it just looked overmatched. The play of the defense was the only thing that kept this from being a worse loss than it was. The offense couldn’t get anything going, and the miscues there and on special teams were killer. 

The defense stepping up the way it did is the only reason this game doesn’t get a total failing grade. 

Grade: D- 

 
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