WILL GARDNER'S FOOTWORK AND OVERALL MECHANICS
I'm completely on board with Will Gardner as the starting quarterback. I think that he is a better passer and I think that the available playbook better suits the offense as a whole. Gardner has played much better than some fans have felt and this is the best opportunity that he will have to prove that. NC State doesn't do anything particularly well on defense and that includes rushing the passer. Will has yet to face a defense that doesn't do a good job getting after the quarterback. Every team that he has faced has at least 16 sacks on the season with a few of those teams having at least one player that the blocking scheme needs to focus on. Outside of Thomas Teal, there is not a defensive lineman on the Wolfpack roster that really puts any fear into an offense. Gardner needs to really improve on his mechanics this weekend with the toughest part of the season approaching. We all have seen how well he can play when he's "on". Now is the time to make "on" be the norm.
WAS LAST WEEK'S PERFORMANCE FROM THE OFFENSIVE LINE A FLUKE?
If you took the time to go back and watch the last two games and really focus on the offensive line you can't help but notice the improvement with the offensive line. We have all been very critical of the offensive line this year and they have deserved it. We're one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to protecting the quarterback and we struggle mightily with running the ball at times. The penalties are still a major issue and they have killed drives the last few weeks that could have really kept the offense moving. But, when there is improvement they deserve praise. They aren't going to turn things around in one game but any progression towards good should get recognition. They held one of the best defensive fronts in the country at bay for the most part. The four sacks that were given up weren't due to poor blocking by the line. The blame belongs with the initial play call and the lack of recognition from Reggie Bonnafon. If the line can continue the trend of improvement from week to week I really think the offense as a whole will improve. Will Gardner has to be able to see blitzes better than Reggie did last week and the running backs need to be able to pass block better. The quarterbacks both had cleaner pockets to throw from last weekend. If the line can replicate that as well as opening holes for the running backs I think we would all be pretty happy.
HOW DOES NC STATE REPLACE TWO DEFENSIVE STARTERS
The Wolfpack defense will be without seven players this weekend. Six of those players were listed on their depth chart coming into this week and two of them were starters. Unless you're an elite team it is very hard to absorb the loss of two starters on one side of the ball. NC State is not elite. Neither are the Cardinals for that matter. We have seen what the loss of DeVante Parker has meant for our offense. One can only imagine what it means for a defense with 12 first or second year players in the two deep. Josh Jones is a ferocious hitter that does a pretty good job in run coverage. His backup, Jarvis Byrd is a fifth year senior that has had some unbelievably bad luck with injuries. He has torn his ACL three times in his career and had a season ending injury in his other season with the Wolfpack. He moved to safety before last season which would lead me to believe that he's lost some speed and quickness due to his injuries. His experience will be a big bonus for this young defense but you can't help but wonder if that lack of speed and physicality will be a hindrance.
True freshman Airius Moore will be taking over as the starting middle linebacker with leading tackler Jerod Fernandez out for the game. Moore has played a total of 67 plays this year which just flat out isn't enough. This defense isn't complex at all but when you're playing such an important role in a defense having experience is a huge help. Talent can help you as a defensive end or maybe at cornerback but you have to know what everyone is doing as a middle linebacker. Moore will likely get help from outside linebacker Rodman Noel when it comes to making calls and adjustments, but when the play starts he will be on his own. Bobby Petrino is known for his ability to see defenses extremely well and adjust to what weaknesses he sees. If Moore struggles in any way Petrino could have a field day taking advantage of his lack of experience.
Both Jones and Fernandez are extremely intense players as well. One thing that gets overlooked with a young defense is the power of momentum and motivation. Young guys like to get hyped up and both of these guys are very vocal players. Can this defense still play upbeat and aggressive without two very passionate guys to get them amped up? It might be an overstated facet of the game but if not it could be something that plays a role in the outcome.
THE TIME FOR OFFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT IS NOW
It's time. The offense is at a point where it absolutely has to get better. This game doesn't seem like much on paper. The Wolfpack have a defense that is giving up over 40 points a game in conference play. The offense is only averaging 4.41 yards per play in the same games. This game needs to be game where we all can praise the play of the offense. Some will nitpick because, that just happens no matter what. But, there needs to be a semblance of a group that can move the ball without a penalty causing a third and long. We should see an obvious scoring drive that isn't killed by an avoidable turnover. Our quarterback should have enough time to progress through his reads if his first option isn't open. We shouldn't be yelling "CATCH THE BALL" five times this weekend.
This offense doesn't have to be great. We all know that. They have to be serviceable. That will win the game Saturday. It won't beat all of the other teams on the schedule. I love defense and our defense is absolutely outstanding. What they've been able to do without getting help from the offense has been so much fun to watch. But that won't work against the teams it will face in the back end of this schedule. You lose a guy or two to injury and who knows? Jameis Winston, Everett Golson, Tyler Murphy, and Patrick Towles are all better talents than any quarterback that we have faced this season (Not counting Watson obviously). Add in all of the other talent and the systems that they play in and things get a lot more daunting. The defense needs to have the offense step up their game now. This game is much more important than it might seem. We've heard for weeks that the offense just needs to get all 11 guys on the same page. This game is the perfect opportunity.