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Preview: Wake Forest @ N.C. State

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The Deacs travel to Raleigh to try to get to 5-0 for the first time since 2006.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at East Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Wake Forest (4-0) travels to Raleigh to take on the N.C. State Wolfpack (2-1) tomorrow at 3:30. The Deacs are looking to get to 5-0 for the first time since 2006, and just the third time in school history (started 7-0 in 1944).

2006 was also the last time Wake Forest defeated the N.C. State in Raleigh, triumphing 25-23 on the back of three 50+ yard field goals from Sam Swank. Overall, the Deacs are 5-20 all-time in Carter Finley Stadium, and aside from the 2006 game, you would have to go all the back to 1984 to find the last victory in Raleigh for Wake Forest.

Per the Wake Forest Game Notes, this will be the 107th consecutive year that Wake Forest and N.C. State have faced each other, making it the third-longest uninterrupted series in the country, behind Minnesota-Wisconsin (109), and Clemson-South Carolina (107). N.C. State currently holds a 65-38-6 record in the previous 109 meetings.

The Pack is currently favored by 10.5-11 points in Vegas depending on the website you go to. They opened at -9 and it quickly climbed into double-digits.

N.C. State comes in at 2-1 on the season, with wins over William and Mary, and Old Dominion. Their loss came at East Carolina in week two, despite a 503-463 yard differential, and averaging 7.51 yards per play.

The Wolfpack is coached by Dave Doeren, who is in his fourth season at the helm. He currently holds a 20-21 record in 41 games, going 8-5, and 7-6 after an initial 3-9 season.

While N.C. State has notched back-to-back bowl games, including a win over a 9-4 UCF team in 2014, Doeren lacks any big-time wins on his resume so far. He has yet to defeat a Power 5 team who finished the regular season with a winning record, and has primarily feasted on easy schedules en route to consecutive bowl games.

This season is a stark contrast in that vein, as N.C. State arguably has one of the hardest schedules in the country. They still have to face: Notre Dame, Louisville, Clemson, Florida State, Miami, and North Carolina. After this week, the Pack hosts Notre Dame in Raleigh, and then travels to Clemson and Louisville in back-to-back weeks.

If Wake Forest manages to steal one in Raleigh tomorrow, it is a very long climb to 6 wins for Doeren and company.

What can we expect from the Wolfpack tomorrow?

Offense

The Pack is led by a sophomore quarterback in Ryan Finley, who has thrown for over 700 yards already through three games. At 61/80 (76.3%), with 6 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, and a paltry 3.5% sack rate, he is one of the more efficient quarterbacks not just in the ACC, but the entire country.

Behind him is one of the better running backs that a strong Wake Forest defense will have to face this year in Matthew Dayes. Dayes has gone for 312 yards on 51 carries (6.1 yards per carry), and two touchdowns. He has also caught an additional 10 balls on 13 targets for 82 yards.

Wake fans likely remember him well after going for 200+ on the Deacs last season in Winston-Salem.

Those two guys are complemented by Jaylen Samuels (TE/FB/Slot receiver/Jack of all trades), Bra’Lon Cherry (WR), and Nyheim Hines (RB/WR). Samuels is a 5’11, 223 pound junior and is a guy that every coach wants on their team. He has 13 catches on the year for 135 yards and three touchdowns, and has also ran the ball 12 times for 62 yards and 3 touchdowns. His unique combination of speed and power has wreaked havoc so far on the young season.

Hines is also a name that Wake fans might know, as he chose N.C. State over Wake Forest a couple of years back. He is a return specialist who has been hampered by injuries so far this season.

While the Pack offense is on you can expect to see them stay on schedule a lot and move the ball consistently down the field. What they lack for in explosive plays (62nd in the nation), they more than make up for it with 4-5 yard chunks play in and play out.

This is primarily bolstered by one of the stronger offensive lines in the ACC. They have provided Matt Dayes with a 43% opportunity rate (runs that go at least 5 yards, ranking 31st in the nation), and fantastic pass protection for Finley.

Defense

The N.C. State defense is really a tale of two sectors, the front seven and the secondary. The front seven is one of the best in the ACC, if not the country (notice a trend here), boasting a dominant defensive line, anchored by Kentavious Street and Darian Roseboro. Both of those guys had huge offers out of high school (talking Florida State, Ole Miss, Miami, etc.), and chose the Wolfpack over any other suitors.

The D-Line ranks 4th in the nation in “havoc rate” at 11.5% (defined as tackles for loss + passes defended + forced fumbles, or frankly, how much hell are these guys raising), with 6.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss.

Behind those guys is junior Airius Moore, who has already provided 5.5 tackles for loss on the season and 17.5 tackles overall. Jerod Fernandez provides additional support with an INT and and additional 1.5 TFL.

The linebacker corps comes in at 36th in the nation with a 5.5% havoc rate.

The secondary has not fared as well so far this season as the guys in front of them. They currently rank 126th in the nation in havoc rate at 3.3% (national average is double that at 6.6%), and have registered just 3 interceptions and 4 passes broken up on the season.

They do a decent job of keeping everything in front of them, but on plays that are defined as “passing downs”, really struggle to keep the ball from getting completed, ranking 91st in IsoPPP (advanced nerd stat that is the equivalent points per play average on only successful plays). Basically that stat shows how consistently successful a team is, and when they are successful, how potent is that success.

I expect Wake Forest to have trouble establishing the run game in this one against such a stout defensive front. The Pack is very good at keeping teams “off schedule” in terms of getting the yards necessary on first and second down to get the first down on the third down play, ranking 21st in the nation. Just a third of opponents plays so far have gone for the yardage necessary to stay on track.

They are very good at stopping runs for 2-3 yards, and it will be a huge test for a vastly improved Demon Deacon offensive line to see if they can win the line of scrimmage battle.

Wake Forest has lacked explosive plays so far this season, and that is a weakness of N.C. State defense, ranking well below average in defensive IsoPPP.

Special Teams

A look at special teams indicates an area that Wake Forest can hopefully capitalize on. Overall, State ranks 79th in Special Teams S&P+, which measures overall how good the unit is. For comparative purposes, Wake Forest is ranked 41st nationally in the same category.

It is really a “feast or famine” category for State, as they struggled immensely in the kicking game, but seem to do quite well in punting game.

N.C. State has used two kickers the season in sophomore Kyle Bambard (15-16 PAT, 1-1 FG), and Connor Haskins (1-1 PAT, 0-2 FG). Haskins went 0-2 in the ECU loss, missing from 42 and 44 yards out, while Bambard made his only attempt of the season, a 30-yarder in the same game. Neither attempted a field goal in the William & Mary and Old Dominion victories.

Field goal kicking could certainly come into play as a big difference in the game. Mike Weaver is 4-5 on field goals so far, and 12-12 on extra points. He has been pulling triple duty the last two weeks in kickoffs, punting, and field goal kicks.

N.C. State has yet to allow a successful punt return this season on its 6 punts (yes, they have only punted six times this season), as sophomore A.J. Cole III holds a 46.5 average with one fair catch and two inside the 20.

Overall

While the record at the end of the season may not represent it, N.C. State has a good team this season. They are very strong at the offensive line, running back, and defensive line positions. Time will tell what they have in their QB Finley, but he has more than passed the eye test (and statistical test) so far.

The secondary remains a big concern, as does the effectiveness of the passing game and the wide receivers outside of the three guys mentioned earlier.

It will be interesting to see if the offensive firepower that N.C. State has demonstrated so far will carry over to a tougher Wake Forest defense tomorrow.

If N.C. State can protect the football as they have been doing all year and not allow an opportunistic Wake D to flip the switch, I think the Pack will put up enough points to win the ballgame.

As most Wake fans saw last week, the defense relies on keeping everything in front of them and making the most of turnover opportunities in a true “bend-but-don’t-break” fashion. While this has worked so far against lesser offensive opponents, the Pack brings in the best offense we have seen so far this season.

I think this game will be close throughout, but Wake has to get off to a better start than they have against the first three FBS teams faced this season. Last week was an aberration, and if they get down 7-0 early in an environment like Raleigh, then I fully expect it to be a long day.

Coach Clawson needs to show that the game against N.C. State last season, where Wake Forest was woefully unprepared, uninspired, and lacked the talent to keep up with the Pack, was a fluke. Tomorrow provides an excellent chance for that.