Well folks, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team finally defeated a Power 5 conference opponent last weekend to improve to 2-3 on the season. Now, in a desperate search for a .500 record, ND will be taking a road trip to Raleigh, North Carolina to do battle with the North Carolina State Wolfpack (and an impending hurricane, apparently).
NC State is 3-1 on the season, and head coach Dave Doeren is looking for his first win over a big-time program as coach in Raleigh. But what else should you, as well-informed Irish fans, know about this Wolfpack team and program?
One Foot Down’s Pat Sullivan asked some questions of Will Thompson, a contributor for Backing the Pack. Let’s see what Will had to share on Doeren’s 3-1 squad and how he thinks they match up against this ever-entertaining 2016 Notre Dame team.
1. If you haven't seen the Notre Dame defense in action this year, here's what they've accomplished against 5 teams who have all turned out to be pretty disappointing opponents: 106th in total defense, 106th in passing defense, 89th in rush defense, 100th in scoring defense. Now, in looking at NC State's performance so far (21st in total offense, 28th in scoring, 28th in passing, 38th in rushing), how do you think the Wolfpack offense matches up with Notre Dame's defense?
Will Thompson (WT): I have paid some attention to what the Irish have been doing, because honestly this game on Saturday has been circled on my calendar for awhile. Really excited for the Pack to finally play Notre Dame again.
Given how Notre Dame's season has played out thus far, in particular on defense, the Pack on paper match up really well. Ryan Finley is the steady hand that leads that offense, and there are some explosive playmakers like Jaylen Samuels and Matthew Dayes that should keep Brian Kelly pretty angry most of the day.
2. What is NC State's talent like at running back and offensive line, specifically? How do you see them performing this weekend?
WT: Matthew Dayes, who I mentioned above, is one of the best running backs in the ACC. He's a tremendous talent that can turn what should be a standard two or three yard rush into a six or more yard rush. He is unbelievably strong, and as great of a runner as he is, he can also catch passes in the flat and turn the corner really quick. He'll be an important part of the Wolfpack offense if they are to win on Saturday (particularly if the weather is rough...more on that in a bit).
To date, the offensive line has played fairly well - they've done a great job at keeping Finley upright and opening up running lanes for Dayes and others. So far this season the Irish have forced only three sacks, so I expect they'll do a lot to turn that around this weekend.
I see Dayes having a really productive day, and I'm fairly confident the offensive line can limit the Irish defense from making any big plays.
3. Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley has been fantastic so far this season, with 1,014 yards, 9 TD, and no interceptions. What weapons does he have at receiver, and how do you think the NC State passing attack will do against a porous, lost, confused, very green Irish secondary?
WT: Man, not much confidence in that secondary, eh? But yes, Finley has had a wonderful start to his season. My colleague at BTP, Steven and I talked about on our recent podcast (shameless plug) how Finley has been the steady hand the offense needs. The Pack is averaging well over 6 yards per play with Finley at the helm, and he's been very good on third downs, completing passes at around a 62% completion rate. That kind of consistency will be needed again to keep DeShone Kizer off the field.
As far as weapons, I mentioned Jaylen Samuels, and while he's listed as a TE or in some instances a fullback, Samuels is the Pack's jack of all trades. He can line up anywhere on the field, and can score at will. He's the biggest playmaker on offense for NC State, so the Irish will have to pay close attention to him.
In addition, his successor, Thaddeus Moss (son of the great Randy Moss) is really starting to come into his own as well - he had a spectacular catch against Wake Forest last week. Last week also saw the emergence of Kelvin Harmon, who also made some sensational catches against Wake Forest.
All in all, Finley has a pretty wide arsenal of offensive firepower at his disposal.
4. The teams that have beaten ND this season have generally been able to bottle up the run and force Brian Kelly's offense to try to win with only the pass. The NC State defense is 21st overall and 13th best against the run so far this year. Do you see them doing the same, and forcing Kizer to shoulder the entire burden with his arm? How do you think the 60th-best Wolfpack pass defense will hold up against the only unit on this ND team that's been fairly consistently productive, led by Kizer, who many are now touting as the #1 QB prospect in the 2017 NFL Draft?
WT: This is the most important factor of the game for the Pack if they are to win. Kizer has been very productive on offense this year for the Irish, and he'll need to be again for the Irish to win on Saturday. The secondary is the weakest part of the defense for NC State and they'll be down starting Safety Shawn Boone for the first half thanks to a weak targeting penalty last weekend. If the Irish can limit the pressure he faces from the Pack's front four, he should be able to have a big day.
The concerning part of the defense for all Pack fans right now is the fact that they haven't forced a turnover in two straight games. That cannot continue on Saturday if the Pack is going to win.
5. Who's the X-factor on the NC State defense? I see sophomore Darian Roseboro leads the team in sacks and a couple DBs and LBs lead the way in tackles. Who do the Irish need to really keep an eye on at all times?
WT: Roseboro is certainly a player to watch, and I'd also add Kentavius Street to that list. Street has two sacks of his own this season, and is very disruptive to opposing offenses.
The front four is the strongest part of the defense for NC State, but be on the lookout for tackling machine Airius Moore from the linebacker spot. Airius is involved on just about every play of the game.
6. NC State coach Dave Doeren was praised for the quick turnaround he executed in Raleigh, bringing the 2014 team to 8-5 and a bowl win after a 3-9 first season the year prior. After going 7-6 last year and starting 3-1 this year, what's the consensus fan sentiment toward the 4th-year coach? Is everything still on-track?
WT: Well...that's still TBD. Dave lost a lot of fan support around here when the Pack lost to ECU earlier in the year, which given how ECU has played since then, has looked worse and worse. Doeren has yet to win "the big game" while at NC State. He typically beats teams he should, and comes up short against more talented teams.
Although Notre Dame is 2-3, winning this game counts as one of those big games in the fans eyes, and would negate that bad loss to ECU in terms of bowl eligibility. Even if the schedule is not as daunting as once thought at the beginning of the year, making a bowl this season would go a long way in securing Doeren's tenure with the team.
7. I know NC State lost to East Carolina earlier this season, but as they prepare to really get into the thick of ACC play, how do you think they will hold up, and do they have any sort of shot when it comes to contending with the likes of Clemson and Louisville for the division title and a shot at the ACC championship?
WT: Do they have a shot? On paper I guess, but having to play @ Clemson, @ Louisville and Florida State at home in a four week period is about as brutal of a stretch as any team in the country is going to see. If State wins even one of those games, that'd be a minor miracle.
No, I don't see the Pack contending for an Atlantic Division title this year whatsoever.
8. If you could take one former NC State great and insert them into the current team to boost a certain position group/side of the ball, who would you choose and why?
WT: I'd absolutely bring back Thunder Dan, Dantonio Burnette. Some Irish fans might recognize him as the defensive player that knocked out Carlyle Holiday in the 2003 Gator Bowl (I mistakenly referred to him as Vonnie Holiday on the recent BTP podcast, my bad!). The Pack could use some of his legendary hard hitting, particularly when it comes to forcing turnovers.
Fun fact - Burnette is now the strength and conditioning coach at NC State, and I'm sure he has had this particular game marked on the calendar for a looooooooooong time.
9. Do NC State fans root for Russell Wilson nowadays, or did he lose support when he went to Wisconsin for his 5th year? Is Jacoby Brissett more beloved because he finished his college career in Raleigh?
WT: Russell is about as divisive of a figure among the NC State fanbase as it gets, and that rift only became worse recently. Even after he went to Wisconsin and ultimately to the Seahawks, there were a lot of NC State fans, myself included, that still supported him.
I lost a ton of respect for him when he went back to Wisconsin this past spring, spoke at their graduation and stretched the truth about what happened with him and Tom O'Brien just a wee bit (if you haven't heard about what happened, this is a good explainer). There are a lot that still love Wilson, but not nearly as many as before.
I don't think Jacoby is more beloved than Wilson just because he finished his career at NC State. In fact, I don't think what happened with Wilson has anything to do with Jacoby. That has more to do with Jacoby getting to start a couple of games for New England and the hype that entailed. If anything, Philip Rivers is still the most celebrated football alum at NC State.
10. Do you/NC State fans ever get confused as to whether Wolfpack is a plural or singular noun? Just in writing these questions I've been second-guessing it. Which is it? Or can it be both?
WT: I honestly haven't ever thought about it. I kind of go back and forth on what I use. I'd imagine there's something on www.gopack.com that officially says what it should be, though.
11. Notre Dame has a fantastic receiver named Equanimeous St. Brown. Who has the coolest name on the NC State side of the field in this game?
I also really like Emanuel McGirt Jr - the last name of McGirt just seems perfect for an offensive tackle.
Bonus: Is there anything else I should know about NC State's team/coaching staff/program/tradition/fan base? Feel free to list a few bullets if there are a bunch of things ND fans should know about NC State that I didn't cover.
WT: Well, before I get to some other bullet points, I mentioned earlier that I'd come back to the weather for this weekend.
As of right now, Hurricane Matthew is lining up to hit North Carolina this weekend, and could bring a substantial amount of rainfall to central NC. We're talking in the realm of potentially 8 inches of rain last I read. If any of the One Foot Down readers are making the trip to Raleigh, bring rain gear because it sounds like the game could be soaked.
Another thing to note for those going to the game - there is a new bag policy at the stadium this season, which you can read up on here.
Also, if you've never been to Carter-Finley, NC State fans pride themselves on great tailgates. Gates to the parking lots open 5 hours before the game, so you'll see people pulling in right at 7 am and starting to pour bloody marys. Given the weather, it may be a bit more subdued this weekend, but it's always a great time nonetheless.
The team is honoring the 50th anniversary of Carter-Finley Stadium during this game, and is wearing throwback helmets and uniforms as well.
Prediction: Give me your predicted outcome, score, and explanation for why you chose that outcome and score so that I can see if you're as bad at predicting game outcomes as I am.
WT: I don't believe for a second that this won't be a close game - that's just the pessimist in me! But given how Notre Dame has struggled to stop anyone from moving the ball, I definitely think the Pack can win this game.
I like Finley and Samuels to have big performances, and hope that the Pack defense can keep Kizer from making big plays.
I'll take the Pack in a washed-out nail-biter, 42-36.
I want to thank Will for giving us that rundown of the NC State team and program, and encourage you all to go check out Backing the Pack for all NC State information leading up to this weekend’s game.
Also give Will and the other writers at the site a follow, they do a great job covering that program!
With all that being said, I’ll see you guys on Friday with my game preview. Go Irish!