NC State, the Bulls' opponent this Saturday, is off to a 2-0 start with a pair of wins over Georgia Southern and Old Dominion. We talked about the Wolfpack over the offseason, but Austin Johnson from Backing the Pack was kind enough to answer some questions for us after State hopped out to a sort-of-hot-but-sort-of-not start. Many thanks to Austin, and you can check out my answers to his questions here.
1. NC State's had two close wins over FBS newbies to open the season-- a 24-23 win over Georgia Southern and a 46-34 win over Old Dominion-- but 2-0 is 2-0. What's the general fan consensus on this team so far? Excited? Concerned? A combination of the two?
AJ: Definitely concerned. I don't think fans expected a big season out of State this year after the Pack went winless in the ACC last season, but they didn't expect these two games to be such a struggle. The biggest concern is probably on defense, as the Pack got torched by both an option team in Georgia Southern and a spread team in Old Dominion. Ultimately I think the team's depth is what won the day for them in both games as they wore out the thinner rosters of these transitioning FCS teams. But as you said 2-0 is 2-0, so fans will take it and hope for improvement going forward.
2. Jacoby Brissett is putting up stats that are leagues ahead of anything he did at Florida, completing over 70 percent of his passes with five touchdowns to a single pick. How has he looked so far? Are Wolfpack fans confident that Brissett is the guy for these next two seasons?
AJ: Aside from some jitters in the first half of the opening game, where he overthrew some open receivers, he's looked the part of a good to very good starting quarterback in the ACC. I think the confidence ( or maybe just the hope at this point ) is pretty high that NC State has its quarterback question answered for the next two seasons, but it will be interesting to see how he handles his first road test this weekend against probably the best defense he's faced so far.
3. The USF defense is young across the board, but after a pretty abysmal showing against Western Carolina, they actually played much better against Maryland. NC State appears to have a lot of weapons on offense beyond Brissett-- who should we be looking out for, and what's the Bulls' best hope of stopping them?
AJ: The two most explosive players on offense for the Pack might be its two running backs - Matt Dayes and Shadrack Thornton. They averaged over six yards a carry against ODU and scored five touchdowns between them. The Pack hasn't been a very good running team in a long time, but it looks like that might change this year and it would appear that the Pack wants to establish the run first and foremost - especially on the road. As far as the wide receivers go, its tough to pick one guy because they have six receivers seeing a decent percentage of snaps right now. The biggest home run threat, Bryan Underwood, is actually one of the guys seeing the field less and less as they've been working on getting younger guys snaps.
4. On that note, the USF offense didn't do very much with the six turnovers that the defense forced against Maryland, and has been unable to get pretty much anything going outside of freshman running back Marlon Mack. How is the Wolfpack front against the power running game? Think they'll be able to force whoever the Bulls' quarterback is this week to pass the ball?
AJ: We haven't seen a power running game yet, but early returns are not promising. The Pack shifted into a full-time 4-2-5 look this year, in an attempt to respond to more spread option attacks, and so far the defensive line has not done a great job in either run or pass situations. It'll be interesting to see if the Pack goes to a third linebacker against USF, especially if Mack starts gashing them on the ground. I imagine the idea will be to stop the run and try to expose the quarterback given the uncertainty at that position for USF, I'm just not sure the Pack will be able to execute that gameplan well.
5. NC State and USF are both coming off dreadful seasons last year, but the winner today has a fantastic shot at a 4-0 (or in the Bulls' case, 3-1) start and a decent shot at bowling provided they can find the wins in conference play. Do you think this team can get there? What's their ceiling in ACC play?
AJ: Yeah, if State can pull out a win on the road on Saturday it seems like clear sailing to a 4-0 start and after last season that has to be seen as positive no matter how ugly it might be getting there. I feel likeSaturday is maybe a 50/50 bet for State (Vegas seems to agree since the spread opened at USF -1.5), so its certainly possible they make it to 4-0. But realistically, even starting 4-0, the ceiling might be 7 wins for this team. It plays in the Atlantic Division of the ACC, meaning that Florida State, Clemson and Louisville are all on the schedule and I just don't see a way that State realistically wins any of those games. Pulling three wins out of the remaining five games would be a huge step forward, but realistically I think fans are hoping to get two conference wins and go to a bowl game. That would show some real progress after last year's debacle.
6. Prediction for Saturday?
AJ: I think its a close, ugly game for the most part. I'll give USF the slight edge here since they are at home and say the Pack loses 24-21.