NC State looking for help on defense, third downs

Posted by ESPN.com's Heather Dinich

Following NC State's 26-17 loss to Florida State on Saturday, defensive tackle Keith Willis Jr. went home for the weekend. It happens to be the same home of the Pack's defensive line coach -- Keith Willis Sr.

"We watched football, but we didn't talk about what I did wrong," Willis Jr. said. "But when it comes down to my assignments, he lets me know if I'm doing a bad job, doing a good job, just like he does any other defensive lineman. He treats everyone the same. ...he's like a father figure to everyone, not just on the d-line, but on the whole team."

Willis Jr. was one of three defensive players who got promoted into the Pack's starting lineup last week with the hopes of giving the worst defense in the league a quick makeover. Coach Tom O'Brien moved redshirt freshman defensive end Jeff Rieskamp and cornerback Koyal George into the starting lineup against Florida State. Rieskamp and Willis are both listed as starters again for Saturday's game at Maryland (5-2, 2-1), according to the depth chart released Monday.

"It's all on performance," O'Brien said. "We move people up and down on how they perform and what they've done, not only during games but in practices."

The Pack certainly needs some help. NC State is last in the league in total defense, rushing defense, pass defense and scoring defense. It got a boost last week with the return of injured starters Alan Michael-Cash and Nate Irving, but Irving left the game after re-injuring his ankle and his status will be determined later this week. With a few key starters returning to the lineup on both sides of the ball, the Pack's problem is no longer injuries -- it's third downs.

NC State's defense is ranked last in the ACC in third-down conversions allowed (43.4 percent). The offense is ranked 11th in third-down conversions made (28.4 percent).

Still, quarterback Russell Wilson said the offense has taken major strides in the past few weeks.

"I think our offense has taken major steps from the beginning of the season, if you watch the first game compared to this game we just played against Florida State," he said. "We've got to find ways to win. No matter what it is, we've got to get the ball as much as we can and take it into the end zone every time we get the ball. That's got to be our mindset."

O'Brien said the one thing he won't do is let his mind wonder to what could have been this season had 12 injured starters not missed time.

"I learned a long time ago as a position coach you coach who shows up on the football field because they're the only people you have to get ready to play," he said. "The kids have played good the last two weeks, we just haven't been good enough to win the football game."