Opponent: NC State Wolfpack
2020 Record: 8-4 (7-3 ACC), Lost TaxSlayer Gator Bowl vs. Kentucky
Head Coach: Dave Doeren (55-46, 9th year at NC State)
Date/Time/Location: Thursday, September 2, 7:30 p.m. Carter-Finley Stadium (57,583), Raleigh, NC
How To Watch/Listen: ACC Network, 95.3FM/620AM WDAE Bulls Unlimited
Series History: NC State leads series 2-1. Last time: Wolfpack won 49-17 in 2014 in Tampa
The South Florida Bulls head up to Raleigh to kick off year two under head coach Jeff Scott, and while things are heading in the right direction, Thursday’s season opener against the Wolfpack will provide some insight on just how much the culture around the USF program has changed.
NC State went 8-4 last year, and defeated two ranked teams in the process in Pittsburgh, and Liberty. Three of their losses came at the hands of ranked teams (Virginia Tech, North Carolina, and Miami). They took care of business against lesser opponents, and right now USF is a lesser opponent.
To make matters worse for the Bulls, NC State returns over 80% of their total production in every single statistical category except passing.
The Wolfpack are led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Devin Leary, who only played in four games last year due to injury, but proved more than capable of leading the team. He threw for 890 yards, 8 TDs, and completed 60% of his passes in 2020. Leary tossed four touchdowns and threw for 336 yards in the win over Pittsburgh.
Leary’s top targets also return this year in wide receivers Emeka Emezie (47 catches, 738 yards, 5 TD), and Thayer Thomas (42 catches, 529 yards, 6 TD). Emezie ranks fifth all-time in Wolfpack history in receptions (169), and seventh in yards (2,093). Thomas is also a lethal return man, averaging 10.9 yards per punt return.
With the unfortunate news that Kansas State transfer Will Jones was lost for the year due to a torn ACL, the Bulls will have to rely on the other 3,234 (approximately) transfers they brought in to bolster the defensive backfield. TJ Robinson (Rutgers), Christian Williams (Miami), and Matt Hill (Auburn) all figure to be key contributors to stopping the Wolfpack’s aerial attack. Mekhi LaPointe, Vincent Davis, and Daquan Evans will provide experience and leadership back there as well.
NC State returns both running backs—Zonovan Knight (143 carries, 788 yards, 5.5 YPC, 10 TD), and Ricky Person (147 carries, 643 yards, 4.4 YPC, 5 TD) to help shoulder the load on offense. While the Wolfpack rushed for a measly 3.4 YPC as a team in 2020, both backs had success carrying the ball behind a less than stellar offensive line.
For USF to have a shot at success on Thursday, they will need to bottle up this duo to closer to the team average of 3.4 YPC as opposed to the 5.0 YPC the Bulls allowed opposing runners to gain in 2020. The Bulls usually came out in a 3-3-5 alignment in 2020, but USF DT Thad Mangum told reporters this week that they’ve practiced in a four-man front this week to help mitigate some of the ground game by the Wolfpack.
The Bulls could not create havoc on defense last season as they registered a paltry 42 tackles-for-loss, and an even worse seven sacks in nine games. Defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer knows the importance of causing negative plays on early downs, and with a full year to install his scheme, we should see an uptick in both departments.
Defensively, NC State is led by the trio at linebacker. Payton Wilson is on the Butkus, Bednarik, and Nagurski awards watch lists after totaling 108 tackles, 11.5 TFL, and 3.5 sacks in 2020. Alongside him are Isaiah Moore (94 tackles, 11 TFL, 3 sacks), and Drake Thomas (58 tackles, 9.5 TFL, 3 sacks).
While the linebackers were good last year, opposing teams were still able to run the ball effectively against NC State. They gave up over 250 yards on the ground four times in 2020, including 314 yards in a loss to Virginia Tech, and 326 yards in a loss to UNC, and that was with future third round pick Alim McNeil clogging up the middle in their 3-4 defense.
USF running backs Darrian Felix, Jaren Mangham, Kelley Joiner, and Brian Battie have to be able to run the ball well on Thursday to give the Bulls a shot in the game.
To help the running backs, new QB1 Cade Fortin has to carry over his hot spring, and fall camp into the opener. Fortin last started a game in 2018 against this very NC State team, and threw for nearly 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns. The additions to the wide receiver room, plus another year under his belt in the system should pave the way for some success on Thursday night.
There’s still a talent gap between these two teams, but not nearly as much as you’d think. The Wolfpack are favored by 18.5 points, and while USF is still not good (yet), they should be able to cover the spread, and put some fear into NC State well into the second half.
Create havoc on defense (TFL, sacks, turnovers). Plant a seed of doubt early on into Leary as he returns from his season-ending injury. Catch a few breaks, and the Bulls may pull off the stunning upset.
NC State 35, USF 24