Hungry Wolfpack Will Present Big Challenge To Eagles

Around the time of the season-ending injuries to Darius Wade and Jonathan Hilliman, as the offense plummeted from methodical, but functional, to cringe-worthy, those around Boston College football (3-6, 0-6 ACC) were forced to reevaluate expectations. Specifically, they had to look over the schedule and completely redefine the concept of a “winnable” game. Saturday’s contest against North Carolina State (5-3, 1-3 ACC), BC’s final home game of the season, was originally seen as an opportunity for the Eagles to head into the rivalry matchup against Notre Dame at Fenway with momentum. The most optimistic of fans even tentatively marked the game as the point where BC might become bowl-eligible.

Unfortunately, given recent events, BC enters the game seeking its first conference win of the season. In order to make Senior Day any different from the team’s five-loss October, the Eagles will have to overcome a hungry Wolfpack team that appears primed to secure its bowl eligibility in the coming weeks.

NC State’s offense actually looks a lot like Steve Addazio’s ideal offense. With 1,621 rushing yards and 25 rushing TDs through eight games, the Wolfpack is a run-first football team. It has a strong offensive line, allowing its runners to average five yards per carry. Driven by the run game, NC State ranks fourth in the FBS in time of possession, holding the ball for over 33 minutes per game, including three games in which it held the ball for over 40 minutes. Junior running back Matthew Dayes is the workhorse for the team, with 865 yards and 12 rushing TDs. Dayes has run for over 100 yards in each of the Wolfpack’s victories in 2015. Whether the QB lines up under center or in the shotgun, head coach Dave Doeren favors power formations, often utilizing multiple tight end.

Fortunately, Doeren has one of the most unique tight ends in the country to drive his scheme. Sophomore Jaylen Samuels, who scored a mind-boggling 59 TDs as a high school senior, plays a huge part in both the air and ground attacks. Standing at just 5-foot-11, he doesn’t have the prototypical tight end’s body. Despite this, he compensates with a strong frame and uncommon speed for the position. Samuels lines up all over the formation, spending time at tight end, receiver, and running back. His runs often come on jet sweeps, especially in the red zone. With six rushing TDs and over 200 yards on the ground, Samuels provides another option for the NC State ground game. In addition, he leads the Wolfpack in receiving with 429 yards and another five TDs.

Samuels is the main target in a passing game led by steady fifth-year veteran QB Jacoby Brissett. The former Florida transfer has been impressive this season, throwing for 13 TDs and only tossing one interception, the second fewest in the country. Brissett is a big passer who does most of his damage from the pocket, but he also contributes on the occasional read option play.

Complementing its methodical attack, the Wolfpack create a deceptive amount of explosive plays. According to Football Outsiders, 18.5 percent of its drives average over 10 yards per play, good for 28th in the FBS. Doeren looks to get the ball to speedy receivers Nyheim Hines and Bra’Lon Cherry in space. The duo has also made NC State extremely dangerous in the kick return game, as the Wolfpack have the country’s fourth-best unit.

Against BC, expect NC State to stay relatively conservative. The running game should be able to move the ball moderately well, with the duo of Dayes and Samuels getting plenty of looks. Brissett should continue to minimize the chance of turnovers, with simple throws, as Doeren knows that one of the only ways BC’s offense can score points is off short fields generated by turnovers.

While drawing mixed reviews from the numbers, the Wolfpack defense appears ideally tailored to handle BC’s one-dimensional offense. NC State features a veteran defense, returning seven starters from its 2014 unit, and is strong on the interior. The team ranks in the top-30 in terms of both passing and rushing yards surrendered per game and allow opponents to convert just 31.2 percent of third downs. In fact, NC State ranks 15th in the FBS in allowing a first down on just 62.2 percent of drives. For comparison, BC’s vaunted defense ranks 20th in this category. These numbers are indicative of a dominant defense, one that excels in getting its opponents off the field quickly.

The statistical profile wouldn’t seem to fit a unit that surrendered a whopping 56 points to Clemson last weekend. Clemson exposed the main weaknesses of the NC State defense: an inability to force turnovers and a tendency to allow big plays. The Wolfpack have forced just seven turnovers all season, second-worst in the nation. Unable to get Deshaun Watson off the field, the defense was worn down by the Tigers vaunted offense. In addition, according to Football Outsiders, NC State allows opponents to average over 10 yards per play on 19.5 percent of its drives. Clemson had six such scoring drives on Saturday, each of which was capped by a touchdown of over 20 yards.

Despite these weaknesses, expect the Wolfpack to handle BC’s offense well. With BC’s explosiveness limited to Addazio’s sideline outbursts, they won’t have to worry about surrendering the big plays that ruined their last game. BC’s run game, featuring a multitude of runs between the tackles, plays right into the interior strength of Doeren’s defense. Look for BC to stumble to a third consecutive subpar rushing effort. In addition, Saturday’s matchup against BC’s inexperienced QBs provides the Wolfpack with a chance to work on forcing turnovers before next weekend’s pivotal matchup with Florida State.

If the Wolfpack force turnovers, it could be another long day for the Eagles. On a day that will begin with emotion, there is a distinct chance that the seniors’ final game will conclude with the Alma Mater echoing in front of an empty student section.

Featured Image by Gerry Broome / AP Photo

November 5, 2015