Instead of depending on the athleticism of standout quarterback Russell Wilson, NC State found itself in an unfamiliar situation last Saturday against UCF – the defense was winning the game for the Pack.
With under a minute to play and UCF trailing by a touchdown, the Knights were on NC State’s 31-yard line when quarterback Jeff Godfrey completed a 20-yard pass. Safety Brandan Bishop put his helmet on the ball to force a fumble and linebacker Terrell Manning recovered at the 10-yard line.
It’s those kinds of game-changing plays that have been missing for NC State, and the kind that could be the difference in whether or not the Pack is an Atlantic Division contender and bowl team this year. NC State coach Tom O’Brien and defensive coordinator Mike Archer both agreed that the defense is still a work in progress with much bigger tests ahead, starting tonight against Cincinnati, but the Pack enters the game holding opponents to just 14 points and 90.5 rushing yards per game. It’s a noticeable difference from last year, when NC State finished 11th in the ACC, allowing 31.2 points per game.
Can it keep it up?
“I think it’s too early to tell,” Archer said. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re encouraged by the fact that for two games we’ve made improvement and last week we had to win it. We had to pull it out at the end. Our kids are older, they’re wiser, they’re a little stronger, but we have a little ways to go.”
The defense is still extremely young, particularly in the secondary, where three of the four starters are either true or redshirt sophomores, and three of their backs are true freshmen. That bodes well for the future, but boundary corner is still a concern, especially with Cincinnati’s quarterback-receiver combo of Zach Collaros and Armon Binns, who are capable of stretching the field.
Granted, it’s only played two games, but the Pack is leading the ACC in total defense (248.5 yards per game), and also leads the league in turnover margin. NC State has created six takeaways and hasn’t lost the ball once.
Last year, the defense intercepted a total of eight passes in 12 games. Against UCF, it had three, including C.J. Wilson’s return for a touchdown. NC State forced five turnovers in that game.
The question is whether or not the Pack can keep it up.
“I think we've made improvement,” O’Brien said. “Whether it's significant or not, I'm not going to buy in for a while. We've only played two games, so there is a lot of football left to play. We'll be severely challenged with Collaros here on Thursday night.
“Each week, I think, will present a different challenge to our defense,” O’Brien said. “We're certainly not going to think that we're a finished product by any stretch of the imagination.”