Spread: NC State -17
How to Watch / Listen: 12:20 p.m. Saturday on RAYCOM (WAVE 3 locally)
Last Time: In a pivotal Thursday night clash, #24 NC State and #17 Louisville were locked in a tight contest. Both teams combined for 990 total yards of offense (470 for Louisville, 520 for NC State), but a late pick-six by Germaine Pratt sealed the deal for the Wolfpack as they won 39-25. Ryan Finley threw for 367 yards and one touchdown, while Nyheim Hines (102 yards, two touchdowns) and Kelvin Harmon (six catches, 133 yards, one touchdown) also had stellar outings for NC State.
Louisville leads the all-time series 6-2.
The State of the NC State Wolfpack
In his six years as NC State’s head coach, Dave Doeren has led the Wolfpack to five straight bowl games. Doeren got his head coaching start at Northern Illinois, where he led the Huskies to back-to-back MAC Championships and even a surprise Orange Bowl appearance against Florida State.
After their win against Louisville last year, the Wolfpack ended up having arguably their best season in a while. They started the season 6-1 with big wins at Florida State and at home versus Louisville, but quickly dropped three of their next four to Notre Dame, Clemson and Wake Forest. However, the Wolfpack finished with a 9-4 record, a Sun Bowl victory against Arizona State, and finished 23rd in the final AP & Coaches Poll.
The NC State Wolfpack are 6-3 heading into tomorrow’s game, with their best wins at home versus Boston College and Florida State. However, they have lost three of their last four to Clemson, Syracuse and Wake Forest.
Key Players: QB Ryan Finley, WR Kelvin Harmon, WR Jakobi Meyers, LB Germaine Pratt
Even as the ACC continues to see more quarterbacks emerge in 2018 with Virginia’s Bryce Perkins and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence playing at a high level, NC State quarterback Ryan Finley remains one of the best in the conference. He has benefitted from having continuity with his coaches in Raleigh; on top of having Dave Doeren stick around, his offensive coordinator (Eli Drinkwitz) has followed him dating back to their days at Boise State.
Ryan Finley leads the ACC in completion percentage (67.7) and passing yards (2,864), all while throwing the ball more than any other quarterback in the conference (233-of-344, 17 touchdowns, seven interceptions).
Finley has a lot of interesting tools that pro scouts will love. His throwing motion is very solid and tight, and that allows him to deliver an accurate ball wherever he needs to. He has solid accuracy and zip on short to intermediate throws, making him an ideal candidate for an NFL head coach with West Coast schemes. He also has enough mobility to occasionally scramble or make tough throws on the run, also showing an ability to get out of pressure situations and make the right read.
For an NC State offense that leads with their passing game, Finley is the perfect fit. He gives the Wolfpack a safe floor on offense, led by a quarterback who manages the game very well and can make a lot of tough throws. His “game-manager” stigma, though, keeps him from breaking through into a bona fide top-ten pick in the 2019 NFL Draft. With that being said, he does have a safe floor as an Alex Smith or Joe Flacco type in the NFL, and his physical tools should be enough to warrant a late first or early second-round pick.
Even though they lost a lot of studs on offense from last year with both Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines in the NFL, the Wolfpack still boast one of the conference’s best receivers in Kelvin Harmon. Harmon leads the conference in receiving yards (965), and averages almost 15 yards per catch. He can stretch the field vertically and can reel it in against tight coverage.
Jakobi Meyers is also important because he is a high-target receiver for Finley. Meyers has had five games where he has tallied at least eight catches, and he could be an important piece of NC State’s gameplan tomorrow. As a former quarterback, he also has the potential to execute a trick play.
NC State had to replace a lot of talent on defense last year, most notably their star defensive end Bradley Chubb. Germaine Pratt has been their leader this season, tallying 91 combined tackles and leading the team with 5.5 sacks as a linebacker. The NC State defense has been a lot more aggressive under new defensive coordinator Ted Roof, so look for Pratt to do the most damage if the Wolfpack defense decides to blitz against Louisville’s offensive line.
Keys to the Game
Louisville Team Morale
It goes without saying that the biggest storyline for Louisville will be their team morale, after head coach Bobby Petrino was fired on Sunday morning. A lot of coaches and players have commented that there is a different energy in practice this week. Can that carry over into Saturday’s game with an interim staff, and will the home crowd carry that energy with them into the final two games?
That said, there are a lot of things that the final two weeks of the season probably can’t fix. Louisville’s defensive line and run defense aren’t guaranteed to improve over the final stretch of the season, especially since they are playing against an NC State offensive line that has allowed five sacks this season. They’ve had issues with turnovers all season as well, and those can’t be fixed overnight either.
But with the head coaching change seemingly galvanizing the team, Louisville could see substantial improvement in effort. That could always minimize the mistakes that have plagued them this season. If they are able to have a big play early (thinking a turnover or a long play for a touchdown), that could also motivate them to play above their heads.
Which Wide Receiver Group Will Have the Better Day?
Where Louisville’s newfound energy can make a difference, though, is in matchups where it’s a little more even, in comparison to NC State’s offensive line versus Louisville’s defensive line.
One of those matchups is Louisville’s wide receivers versus NC State’s secondary. Despite NC State having 29 sacks on the season (16th nationally), they are 129th in passing defense (305.3 yards per game). In their last four games, NC State has allowed 393.75 yards per game, including 400+ yards to Syracuse and Florida State.
Given that, Louisville’s passing game has an opportunity to have a huge day. If they can stretch the field or make a tough play, that can energize the crowd (and the team) more and give the offense some confidence. If they can score 21-27 points against NC State’s defense, they may have a shot against them.
On the opposite side, Louisville’s secondary faces a tough matchup against a veteran, talented NC State receiving corps. Louisville does rank 22nd in passing defense, but that is misleading because (A) they’ve played Indiana State and Georgia Tech who run the ball almost exclusively, and (B) teams have chosen to run the ball relentlessly against them. Finley had a stellar outing in last year’s game, and thus the possibility of him having another solid outing is in play.
What Will Louisville’s Offensive Playcalling Look Like?
With Bobby Petrino out as head coach, that has left offensive coordinator Lonnie Galloway to take the reins as Louisville’s play caller.
There likely won’t be any massive changes to the scheme or the formations that Louisville will use, but they could always utilize the running game a little more. NC State has one of the best rushing defenses in the country (eighth nationally, 96 yards allowed per game), but dedicating to a more balanced offense would also ease the pressure off of Louisville’s passing game to do basically everything for them. Plus with more run plays called, there’s always a chance (albeit small) that someone like Hassan Hall or Tutu Atwell can break a big play outside.