Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network
Spread: NC State -6.5, O/U 56.5 (Bovada)
Despite missing star left tackle Mekhi Becton, Louisville’s offense played a clean game. Aided by zero turnovers, quarterback Malik Cunningham completed 13-of-20 passes for 249 yards and four touchdowns and kicker Ryan Chalifoux added a fifth touchdown through the air on a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. The Louisville defense forced three turnovers as well, as the Cardinals secured a 34-20 win over the Wolfpack to secure bowl eligibility.
Louisville leads the all-time series 7-3. The Cardinals have won four of six meetings against the Wolfpack since joining the ACC.
2021 NC State Wolfpack at a Glance
With the reshuffling of conference schedules last season due to the COVID pandemic, Louisville and NC State did not meet in the planned season opener, or at all in 2020. The Wolfpack bounced back from a 4-8 season in 2019 to flip it in 2020, going 8-4 with notable wins at Pitt and Liberty.
The 2021 Wolfpack have lost at Mississippi State and at Miami this season, but have notable wins over then ninth-ranked Clemson in double overtime, Louisiana Tech, and Boston College. The Wolfpack enter Saturday night with a 5-2 record.
NC State Offense Breakdown
A huge reason why NC State rebounded from 2019 is the development of quarterback Devin Leary. The third-year player was thrown into the fire as a true freshman and struggled with accuracy issues throughout his first season. His 2020 season was cut short due to a fractured fibula against Duke, but 2021 has truly been a breakout season for Leary.
Comparing his 2019 tape to his last two seasons, Leary looks substantially better. He’s completing 66% of his passes and holds an 8.5:1 TD-to-INT ratio this season, substantially better from his freshman numbers in 2019 (48% completion, 8:5 TD-to-INT ratio). Leary throws with decent zip at every level and is really efficient with taking care of the ball, which makes this NC State team look very similar to the good ones with Ryan Finley at quarterback. He’s also been clutch for NC State in some of its closer games, coming up with big drives to win against both Pitt and Clemson the last two seasons.
The Wolfpack receiving corps is outstanding and has a good combination of young and experienced players. Emeka Emezie and Thayer Thomas came back for yet another season at NC State and once again lead the team as its top two receivers. Emezie is the school’s all-time leader in receptions (206, entering Saturday’s game) and leads the team with 452 receiving yards. Thayer Thomas is a solid slot receiver that really stands out on underneath routes and special teams. He can also occasionally be used on trick plays as shown in past seasons. Sophomore Devin Carter is a big play threat with 17 yards per reception. He has outstanding body control on his catches. A lot of NC State receivers on this roster can make tough 50/50 catches, which combined with Leary’s improved accuracy, makes it a tough assignment for any secondary.
Then you get to NC State’s running backs, which also have a lot of talent. Zonovan “Bam” Knight is a big play threat with almost six yards per carry and has burner speed at the second level. Ricky Person, Jr. adds more power to the lineup and is also elusive at times. Both guys can also be big parts of the passing game, as Knight and Person have combined for 27 receptions on the season.
Players to Watch: QB Devin Leary (66% completion, 17 TDs, two INTs); WR Devin Carter (17 yards per catch, 323 yards, three TDs); RB Zonovan “Bam” Knight (5.8 yards per carry, 577 yards, three TDs)
NC State Defense Breakdown
Though this defense enters Saturday ranked 16th in FBS in total defense (310.9 yards per game), it has had no shortage of injuries as of late. Linebackers Payton Wilson and Isaiah Moore have both suffered season-ending injuries in 2021, along with safety Cyrus Fagan and defensive lineman C.J. Clark. This leaves NC State without its top tackler from the last two seasons, and its #2 tackler from this season.
The top tackler, Drake Thomas, is available though. Thomas has been good at just about everything this season for the Wolfpack, as he is also top three on the team in TFLs (4.0) and sacks (2.0), and he leads the team in interceptions as well (two). With the injuries to Wilson and Moore, Thomas is the unquestioned leader of the defense for the rest of the season. Vi Jones (4.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks), however, has been impactful for this team this season.
Louisville wasn’t able to run the ball effectively in their last meeting two seasons ago, and based on NC State’s success this year, that could happen again on Saturday. NC State has the best rushing defense in the ACC entering Saturday, allowing just 91 yards per game on the ground. This defense hasn’t allowed any opponent to rush for over 150 yards or average over four yards per carry, so it will be a good litmus test for a Louisville team coming off its best two games on the ground against Virginia and Boston College.
The defensive line has been decent at stopping the run, but without Wilson or Moore to anchor the linebacker spots, it hasn’t been able to generate much havoc single-handedly. NC State ranks just ninth in the ACC in sacks (14) and tenth in tackles for loss (40), despite all its success in stopping the run and even being very serviceable as a pass defense. Daniel Joseph (3.5 TFLs, 21 tackles) and Florida State grad transfer Cory Durden (2.5 TFLs, 16 tackles, two sacks) have been the impact players on the line so far.
The secondary is led by safety Tanner Ingle, who is highly underrated and can play both run and pass equally well. Senior Derrek Pitts, Jr. is fourth on the team in tackles (26) and has three PBUs on the season, with freshman Shyheim Battle getting frequent time as well (18 tackles, three PBUs)
Players to Watch: LB Drake Thomas (53 tackles, 4.0 TFLs, two sacks, two INTs); S Tanner Ingle (37 tackles, INT)
Keys to the Game
- Can Louisville’s passing game give them the edge?
NC State’s toughest games so far have been against teams that have been able to throw the ball against them. In games where opponents have completed over 60% of their passes, the Wolfpack are 0-2. If teams throw for over 250 yards, the Wolfpack are 1-2, their lone win against Louisiana Tech.
Miami was able to thrive in throwing the ball against this NC State secondary, especially towards the intermediate and deep parts of the field. Louisville has to avoid the turnovers that it had last week against Boston College, and be able to push the ball downfield like Miami and Mississippi State were able to. They have the receivers — Tyler Harrell and Jordan Watkins, come to mind — to be able to stretch the field. I think Marshon Ford is also a big plus against a NC State linebacker group that is depleted by injuries. Look for him to be used frequently on Saturday night.
- Will Louisville’s front seven be able to replicate its success from last week?
For the second straight week, Louisville’s front seven finds itself facing a stout offensive line. The Cardinals were able to stifle Boston College with a substantially more aggressive scheme against the Eagles, but NC State brings more balance and more talent in both the passing and running game.
Additionally, NC State has some superb talent on the offensive line. They’ve allowed just 11 sacks and 26 tackles for loss this season, fourth and first in the conference, respectively. They did lose grad transfer Chandler Zavala for the season recently, but are still very solid with center Grant Gibson among its starting lineup. Louisville has to find a way to get pressure on Leary and avoid letting him throw it around to his playmakers, especially given Louisville’s troubles with pass coverage.