Spread: Louisville -4
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, ACC Network
Returning home after head coach Bobby Petrino was fired Sunday afternoon, the Cardinals hosted NC State in their final conference game of 2018. Louisville jumped out to a 3-0 lead, but the Wolfpack quickly turned it around to score 45 unanswered points. Ryan Finley completed 26-of-36 passes for 316 yards and a career-high four touchdown passes, as NC State cruised to a 52-10 win over Louisville.
Louisville leads the all-time series 6-3. The Wolfpack have won the last two in the series.
Meet the 2019 NC State Wolfpack
The 2018 NC State team ended up finishing with a 9-4 record and a brutal bowl loss to Texas A&M. NC State’s offseason would be centered around replacing a ton of playmakers on offense, especially quarterback Ryan Finley (who, by the way, made his first career NFL start last Sunday against Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens). The Wolfpack also had to replace linebacker Germaine Pratt, who was one of the top pass rushers in the conference and a key part of NC State’s 2018 season.
2019 has seen a bit of regression from the Wolfpack, mostly due to the playmakers that they lost on both sides of the ball. In addition to the personnel losses they had this season, NC State lost seven starters to season-ending injuries, and 43 players have started a game for the Wolfpack (most among Power Five schools). 31 freshmen have also played a down for NC State this season, including starting quarterback Devin Leary.
NC State enters Saturday night with a 4-5 record, needing to win two of its last three to secure bowl eligibility for the sixth straight season under Dave Doeren.
Key Offensive Players: QB Devin Leary, WR Emeka Emezie
When we say NC State had a lot to replace on offense this offseason, we meant a lot. First, Doeren had to replace a three-year starter at quarterback, and given the recent pedigree at the position from Philip Rivers to Ryan Finley, expectations for the Wolfpack’s new starter would always be high. Then you add on having to replace a 1,000-yard rusher (Reggie Gallaspy, Jr.), two dynamic wide receivers (Kelvin Harmon and Jakobi Meyers), and then a first round pick at center (Garrett Bradbury). And then on top of all that, your offensive coordinator leaves to become a first time head coach at the FBS level, and your offensive line coach who helped build one of the best units in the country leaves for a division adversary.
Full scale rebuilds like this aren’t uncommon in college sports, but NC State has certainly felt the impact of it all. NC State has already played three quarterbacks this season, with the last two games going to redshirt freshman Devin Leary. Leary was the #9 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 class, and a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey while setting the state career record for yards and touchdown passes. He has a strong arm that is capable of making throws across the field, but has struggled with accuracy as a newly-crowned starter. Leary is completing 44% of his passes this season, and NC State has only scored 20 points combined in his two starts.
All signs point to Leary staying on as the starter for Saturday’s game, but as mentioned, they do have two other quarterbacks that have started this season. Matthew McKay was the starter to begin 2019, and led the Wolfpack to a 3-1 start with wins over East and Western Carolina, as well as Ball State. McKay is a decent veteran that has the ability to scramble and make plays with his feet. Bailey Hockman also made a few starts this season, including their lone Power Five and conference win against Syracuse. I do think Leary might have the most upside of the bunch due to his arm strength and youth, but another offseason could help his growth as a passer.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, there are a couple of fine options at wide receiver and tight end. Emeka Emezie is the lone hangover from a receiving corps that was one of the best in the ACC last season. He averages 10.02 yards per catch and leads the Wolfpack in receptions (43) and yards (431). Emezie had a solid game against Louisville last year, hauling in seven catches for 72 yards and a touchdown. Of NC State’s receivers, Emezie is perhaps the best overall with route running and finding separation consistently.
Thayer Thomas is a solid #2 option at the position, and he really shines in making tough catches in traffic. They’re also not afraid to use him on trick plays, as evidenced by a key play in the Syracuse game that led to a win over the Orange. The Wolfpack also have a 6’7″ tight end in Cary Angeline, who could present matchup problems similar to what Western Kentucky and Boston College were able to do earlier this season.
Key Defensive Players: DL Larrell Murchison, LB Drake Thomas
Not unlike the offense, NC State’s defense has also had to deal with injuries and personnel losses. The Wolfpack have lost three cornerbacks (Chris Ingram, Taiyon Palmer, and Teshaun Smith) to season-ending injuries, and dealt with more on a week-on-week basis, particularly at linebacker. Defensive end Xavier Lyas also announced this week that he would be entering the transfer portal, leaving the Wolfpack without their third-leading sacker (4.0) and who has forced the most fumbles (two).
Losing Lyas will place even bigger pressure on defensive lineman Larrell Murchison to make plays for a Wolfpack defense that has struggled in recent weeks. Murchison leads the team in sacks (7.0) and tackles for loss (10.0). Murchison is a disruptor at the line of scrimmage with a relentless motor, and his games against Florida State and Syracuse generated enough buzz for him to be considered a mid-round draft pick this spring.
NC State’s defense hasn’t been great in a lot of areas as of late, but one area they excel is getting pressure on the quarterback. The Wolfpack have 29 sacks this season, tied for 14th in the FBS. This will be Louisville’s fourth straight game against a defense that is top 15 in that category, so the focus will once again be on the line of scrimmage battle between Louisville’s offensive line and NC State’s odd 3-3-5 defense.
If NC State’s linebackers can come back at full strength, that would be a huge asset as they face a Louisville team that will continue to run the ball at their pace. Drake Thomas has been coming along as a true freshman in recent weeks, recording at least five tackles in each of his last three games. Thomas also has 1.5 sacks and an interception this season. He and Louis Acceus (50 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks) are the ones to watch at linebacker. Isaiah Moore could also return from injury for this game, which would give NC State another boost at the position.
One More Important Thing to Know
In the NFL, no college has had more starting quarterbacks this season than NC State. Four quarterbacks have played at least one season in Raleigh, including Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who played three seasons for the Wolfpack before playing his final season at Wisconsin. Philip Rivers, Jacoby Brissett (who transferred from Florida), and Ryan Finley also played for NC State before starting their pro careers.
How will NC State’s 3-3-5 defense stack up against Louisville’s running game?
To my knowledge, Louisville hasn’t played a team that has ran a 3-3-5 scheme like NC State has. The Wolfpack transitioned to a 3-3-5 scheme this season, and it’s carried a mixed bag of performances with it. While the Wolfpack are among the nation’s leaders in sacks, and had back-to-back eight sack games against Florida State and Syracuse, they’ve also been exploited in recent weeks in multiple ways. Boston College ran the ball 60 times and had 7.2 yards per carry against NC State, and both Clemson and Wake Forest had 290+ passing yards against them.
The 3-3-5 defense may indicate an undersized front for Louisville’s running game to exploit, but it isn’t as simplistic as that. The 3-3-5 is a defense that relies on crafty playcalling by the defensive coordinator, as they attack different gaps and throw different blitzes in an effort to confuse the offense. In simple terms, the 3-3-5 is a defense with the speed to defend passes (five defensive backs are a staple in the defensive set), but its different blitz packages like fire zone, etc. can also stop the run.
And so far, NC State has been up to the task in stopping the run. Even after allowing 400+ rushing yards to Boston College, the Wolfpack are 36th in run defense with 133.1 rushing yards per game. They’ve held teams to 3.7 yards per carry but in three of their four losses (WVU, Clemson, Boston College), the Wolfpack have allowed 170+ rushing yards and 6+ yards per carry.
How Louisville chooses to counter that with their offense will be key. They can have success with their standard zone run plays, but it will require them to block successfully and provide lanes for Hawkins and Hall to run through. If Mekhi Becton can play on Saturday, his matchup against Murchison will be one to watch at the line of scrimmage.
Can Louisville’s defense confuse Devin Leary (or other NC State QBs?)
When NC State has the ball, their first priority should be to get Devin Leary into an early rhythm. How they go about doing that, though, is the key. Leary has completed 44% of his passes through the season, and in order for NC State to have a shot at bowl eligibility with three games remaining, they have to get better production from the position.
There’s two ways that, in my opinion, NC State can go about getting Leary into a groove against Louisville. First, they have to rely more on their running game. The Wolfpack have a trio of stellar running backs, but lately they’ve been relying on Zonovan Knight in the backfield. Knight is coming off one of his better games against Clemson, rushing for 139 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers. I think giving him and Jordan Houston (70 carries, 347 yards, two touchdowns) enough carries and having success running the ball would take the pressure off Leary — or any NC State quarterback — to have a spectacular game to win.
Unfortunately, NC State hasn’t been able to generate a lot of success in run blocking. The Wolfpack are among the worst teams at power success and stuff rates, and are 111th in line yards according to Football Outsiders. That can always change against a Louisville defense that has been up and down throughout the year, but NC State has to run the ball to take pressure off Leary to produce.
The second option is to have Leary find Cary Angeline as an option. Louisville has had issues covering tight ends at times throughout the season, and Angeline will present a lot of mismatches with his size (6’7″, 250 lbs.). He is among the team’s leaders in receiving yards (369), and is the team leader in touchdowns (four). Everybody always raves about the tight end position being a safety valve for a young quarterback, and I do believe that can be true in this game for Leary. If Leary can get to Angeline often and early, it would bode well for NC State’s offense on Saturday.
Can Louisville’s offense play a clean game?
Last week was the worst game of the season for the Cardinals, in terms of overall discipline. Louisville tallied a season-high 14 penalties and committed a couple turnovers deep into Miami territory, both of which proved to be backbreakers as the Hurricanes scored at will on Louisville’s defense. The 14 penalties was an outlier for Louisville this season, as the Cardinals never tallied more than eight in a game prior to last Saturday.
The key for Louisville’s offense will be to avoid both and bounce back from last week. They do face a defense that is last in the FBS in forced turnovers (five) and is -8 overall in the margin. That isn’t to say a Louisville turnover can’t happen in this game, but it is a good indicator for the Cardinals to be able to play a cleaner game. If that happens, Louisville will be in a good position to secure bowl eligibility on Saturday night.