The Wolfpack come into PJCS this weekend for on a three game losing streak and missing seven contributors. State went into the Florida State game a few weeks ago undefeated and jumped out to an early 24-7 lead in the first quarter. They've been outscored 120-31 since the start of the second quarter in that game. Dave Doeren has had some serious issues with finding depth with such a young team. Missing seven players that are all listed on your depth chart won't help that.
The Wolfpack have benefited greatly from the transfer of Jacoby Brissett. Brissett got tired of sharing snaps with Jeff Driskel at Florida and decided to transfer. He has had some really great moments for the Pack so far this year but he is playing with a very limited supporting cast. He commands a wide open spread offense that often operates with five wide receivers. The issue is that a lot of those receivers are inexperienced. Brissett spends a lot of time surveying his options for an open target only to have to tuck the ball and run. Brissett is no statue, but he's not a running quarterback at all. I would compare him to Teddy in that respect. Brissett has been fairly accurate this year and has only thrown two interceptions. He has, however, been extremely careless with the ball and has somehow just not been punished for it. Last week he was being sacked and found it to be a good idea to pass the ball backwards to his running back while being spun around. Luckily his back bailed him out and somehow only lost a few yards. Some quarterbacks don't do a great job of "living to fight another day", Brissett is a very good example of one. Against a ball-hawking defense like Louisville he will need to tread lightly.
Matt Dayes, Shadrach Thornton, and Tony Creecy are all averaging six yards per carry or better this year and Louisville will probably see all three running backs this week. Thornton is the best back on the team but he is battling injuries and has been listed third on the depth chart this week. Realistically, it shouldn't matter much which back is in the game as much as it matters how they are utilized. NCST tends to get a little pass heavy at times and in general none of the backs ever really gets in a rhythm. I would have to imagine that the committee system is by design to keep all of the backs fresh for late in games, but I'm not sure it's working very well. Over the last three weeks NCST has only averaged 3.1 yards per carry and are barely getting 8 rushing first downs a game. With the offense so spread out it can be hard to get a solid running game going, but NCST has to find a way to get it's best position on offense more touches.
Wide Receiver is an area that really has been lacking this year for NCST. Bo Hines was a very nice prospect coming out of high school this past year, but he's not the type of talent that should be leading your team in receiving. The group as a whole just doesn't have a lot of speed and they've had issues getting separation from defenders. That makes it that much harder for Brissett to get the ball to them and when they get the ball it cuts down on yards after the catch. Doeren doesn't have a true deep threat on this team and every defense knows it. They've pressed receivers and dared the offense to go deep and when they have gone deep they haven't fared too well. The real issue that it causes is that it makes the quick screens the offense runs pretty ineffective. Boston College had zero respect for anything going past five yards last week. They just waited for the short pass and made the sure tackle. I would imagine that Louisville will have the same success.
The offensive line for NCST has been a bright spot for the offense. They have done a pretty good job of protecting Brissett with most of the sacks they've given up being due to coverage or Brissett holding the ball too long. They have also done a good job of run blocking if you take the entire season into account. They haven't done too great over the last two weeks, but they have also faced two very good run defenses. The line does a pretty good job getting out in front of screens and cutting down defenders on the quick passes the offense likes to run. Sometimes it's really about how good the line does in the system that they are assigned too and not really about how talented they really are. NCST seems to have that going for them. They do what they are assigned and they do it pretty well.
KEY PLAYERS: QB Jacoby Brissett, RB Shadrick Thornton, RB Matt Dayes, WR Bo Hines
The defense as a whole has a ton of issues and the defensive line is where they start. The line doesn't do a very good job of getting pressure on opposing passers which always causes problems for the defense as a whole. The line has combined for 10 sacks on the year while also being absolutely blown off the ball on run plays. Throw in the lack of speed at the defensive end positions and it's easy to see why Tyler Murphey and Deshaun Watson absolutely killed them on edge runs on designed QB runs the last two weeks. Even Jameis Winston had a 20 yard run against them. Thomas Teal is a very talented defensive tackle, but he's been facing double teams this year because of the lack of talent around him. The Louisville offensive line held their own pretty well against a really good Clemson defensive line. This could be an opportunity for another big step forward for the group.
The Wolfpack defense is led by a redshirt freshman middle linebacker, Jerod Fernandez. Unfortunately, Fernandez is one of the suspended players this week and true freshman Airius Moore will be taking his place. I haven't seen Moore play as he has only had 67 snaps this year, but I can't imagine that he has a complete grasp of the defense or the intensity that Fernandez does. He will get some help playing next to senior Rodman Noel, but being out there on the field in front of a hostile crowd could be too much for the freshman. Neal and the rest of the defense do one thing extremely well. They all can flat out run. They tend to have issues with what to do when they get to where they're running to, but they get there fast. Neal does a pretty good job of shooting gaps on stretch plays and playing sideline to sideline. That's something to keep an eye on with Louisville's off tackle and toss plays.
When you play such a large number of young guys mistakes tend to happen in bunches. A big factor with the defenses issues lately is how undisciplined they are. Guys tend to just run to the ball instead of minding their assignment. Coverages have been blown in the secondary because guys aren't communicating. The secondary has been put in a bad spot at times due to the lack of a pass rush and they have been absolutely burned the last few weeks. Watson and Winston completed deep passes with ease while also having their short options open all day. Pass coverage just hasn't gone well for the Wolfpack back line. If there's an area to be happy with it has to be the aggressive tackling from the safeties. Josh Jones has been suspended but Hakim Jones is a very good open field tackler and he likes to make his presence known. The aggression of the secondary has caused some issues this year with them overrunning plays and pursuing plays well outside their assignment. The throwback plays that Petrino called last week could be there again this week.
The Wolfpack defense is just a very undisciplined group. Guys over-pursue plays. They don't do a good job of staying with their defensive assignments. They're a stereotypical young team that makes a lot of young mistakes. This is the opportunity that Louisville has been waiting for to truly see what this team can look like when playing an over-matched team. They are not at all lacking team speed or a solid system but they haven't yet acquired the depth or experience to really be very good. The Cardinals need to take advantage of the situation and make some strides on offense.
KEY PLAYERS: DT Thomas Teal, WLB Rodman Noel, CB Jack Tocho, FS Hakim Jones