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And In That Corner … The No. 14 North Carolina State Wolfpack and a vaunted run defense

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Due to some crossed signals, two sets of responses came in from North Carolina State beat reporters for this week’s rendition of a boxing analogy. They offered different styles in their answers, complementary in nature, so let’s present both. It is appropriate to have even further insights into the No. 14 Wolfpack than usual, as it may be — particularly in the eyes of this scribe — the toughest opponent remaining on Notre Dame’s schedule.

As an unnecessary reminder, the Irish host North Carolina State at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

For now, let’s turn to Matt Carter of The Wolfpacker and Joe Giglio of Raleigh’s The News & Observer.

DF: Hey guys. I hope you enjoyed North Carolina State’s bye week. For our purposes, it is always nice when those come right in the middle of the season. How many years have you been on the Wolfpack beat now?
MC: I started in the summer of 2004 just in time to see Mario Williams break out as an NC State defensive end and am in my 14th season.

JG: I’ve been at the paper for 20 years but only on the State beat since 2008 for basketball and 2011 for football.

Speaking of that bye week, how did NC State spend it? To my knowledge, the team isn’t too banged up at this point, so there was not an impetus on getting guys healthy, at least not more than there always is in the middle of a football season.
MC: Dave Doeren stated during his weekly Monday press conference that a lot of time was spent going back to the basics and working on fundamentals. The Wolfpack has been fortunate from an injury standpoint but it still was able to use the time to get some bumps and bruises taken care of.

JG: They got a few days off last week and spent some time on fundamentals. You’re right, for the most part they have been healthy, except in the secondary. A little extra rest doesn’t hurt, though.

Through seven games, including an active six-game winning streak, Wolfpack senior quarterback Ryan Finley has thrown for 1,968 yards and 11 touchdowns without completing a single pass to the opposition. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Let’s continue with a micro view, specifically senior quarterback Ryan Finley. The current buzz du jour around him is his complete lack of interceptions thrown, but he is certainly more than a game manager protecting the ball. His 69.4 completion percentage jumps off the page and averaging more than 280 passing yards a game is something Notre Dame’s secondary may fear. What about his game makes Finley so effective while also keeping him off the national radar?
MC: It’s a combination of factors. He graduated from Boise State in three years and is close to finishing his masters at NC State. Thus, he has a very good head on his shoulders. Secondly, he’s a smart guy who has been in this system for four years now. Wolfpack offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz was Finley’s offensive coordinator at Boise State and the two made the move to Raleigh together. Combining his intelligence and familiarity with the offense with an accurate touch throwing the football and a very calm and cool demeanor on and off the field, and you have a quarterback that just has not been easy to rattle this season.

JG: Finley makes quick reads and gets the ball out of his hands. He also has gotten better about taking more shots down the field. What has really helped him is the receivers making more plays on 50-50 passes.

Sticking with the offense, Irish coach Brian Kelly described senior H-back Jaylen Samuels as a “match-up nightmare.” I usually see him described as a tight end/wide receiver, but from the North Carolina State games I have seen, that hybrid description does not accurately explain his role in the offense. He has 191 yards and seven touchdowns rushing to go along with 453 yards and three touchdowns receiving, after all. How does the offense showcase, if not even rely on, Samuels?

Senior Jaylen Samuels lines up just about everywhere for North Carolina State. (Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)

MC: The goal is to put Samuels in advantageous matchups, and because he is so versatile it can really strain a defense. He has the ability to exploit matchups at multiple spots on the field. More times than not you will probably see Samuels in the slot, but he will also line up in the backfield, occasionally put his hand in the dirt as a traditional tight end and even take a few snaps out wide. This year it seems to me more than anything he has emerged as one of the offense’s go-to guys on third downs and in the red zone in particular.

JG: He’s basically a slot receiver they also use as a short-yardage running back. They’ve started using him more and more in the red zone at running back. He’s a little bigger than junior Nyheim Hines, which helps in short-yardage situations.

He leads the team targets (63) and catches (54). Those are mostly shorter, intermediate routes. There are some specific plays designed for him — on jet sweeps and shovel pass — but for the most part, he’s a glorified slot receiver.

In some respects, Finley and Samuels may have excelled without great notice because the Wolfpack defense gets the headlines, specifically its front seven. It hasn’t seen an offensive line like Notre Dame’s yet, though. Then again, the Irish struggled against Georgia’s defensive front, but the o-line has pretty clearly improved since the second week of the season. In something of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, how do you see the trenches being won?
MC: My suspicion is that you will see a middle ground met. I would not suspect Notre Dame is going to rush for 300 yards against NC State. Nor do I think it’s realistic for the Wolfpack to shut down the Irish like Georgia did, which as you pointed out was back in week two.

To me, the key is which team is winning in the fourth quarter when it’s quite possible the game is on the line. NC State’s defense, at times, has been far better in the second half of games this year than the first.

JG: I expect Notre Dame’s offense to do what a lot of teams have done against State: Get rid of the ball quickly and not give senior defensive end Bradley Chubb a chance to get after the quarterback. State’s run defense is pretty stout, with B.J. Hill and Justin Jones in the middle.

A few teams have found success through the air despite that pass rush. Specifically, Marshall threw for 350 yards, Syracuse 385 and Louisville 354. The Irish passing attack has been, shall we say, lacking this season, but could that be an opportunity to exploit a Wolfpack weakness?
MC: There have been teams that have literally abandoned the run to throw the ball against NC State. Those three games are very good examples of that. Marshall’s leading rusher carried eight times. Sixteen of Syracuse’s 30 rushes were by the quarterback. Louisville took a very similar approach. That is partly a tribute to the respect of the Wolfpack rush defense, but also the fact that teams know they can throw the football effectively against NC State if given time.

The Wolfpack has faced a lot of offenses using max protection to block the front to exploit matchups against the secondary. The question is will a fully healthy secondary make a difference in the second half of the year. By the end of the South Carolina game through week five against Syracuse, NC State was down two starters and a top reserve. The two starters have since returned and were rotating snaps the last three games while easing back in.

JG: The shots will be there. State’s a bend-don’t-break defense. Marshall receiver Tyre Brady had a big game by getting into man routes with corner Johnathan Alston, a converted receiver. I would expect Notre Dame to try to take some shots down the field with junior Equanimeous St. Brown.

Switching to a macro view, entering the season some considered North Carolina State an ACC dark horse, but with the defending national champion in the conference, not very many had that outlook. What were, and what are, the realistic expectations closer to the program? You certainly know more than those viewing from 35,000 feet.
MC: There was not much doubt that this was Dave Doeren’s best team at NC State, and it fit a lot of the criteria of a team that should have a really good season. It returned a ton of experience from a squad that went 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less (including a win against Notre Dame which had similar struggles in close games). If you ask those around the program, NC State felt, with justification, it should have won all four of those games it lost.

So it was a competitive team returning all the key players. But the expectations were also tampered for two reasons. One, the perception around NC State athletics, especially with its basketball team, is it historically underachieves when it should be good. Secondly, the schedule was going to be difficult, especially since the ACC’s Atlantic is considered far superior to the Coastal.

Perhaps fortunately for NC State, a couple of those Atlantic heavyweights — Clemson and Louisville — are struggling.

JG: The Wolfpack has won at least 10 games only once in school history. That’s it. Most people here thought this team could win 10 games. The playoff talk was always kind of looked at like a lark with Clemson, Florida State and Louisville being the main obstacles.

Those expectations may have changed after wins over Florida State and Louisville. The nature of college football now devalues those wins a bit, but whether or not that is valid — and it is likely somewhere in between — those wins gave the Wolfpack season quite a bit of momentum from afar. How has that been felt around the program?
MC: If anything, it got NC State over that hump. Last year, NC State dropped an interception that probably would have sealed a 20-17 win over Florida State at home and opened the door for the ‘Noles to win it on a late touchdown, 24-20. The team needed a success to point to as proof its direction and approach were the right way. It got those wins under challenging setups.

As you noted, both FSU and Louisville may not have been what they were expected to be, but Florida State essentially had three weeks to prepare for NC State due to Hurricane Irma altering its schedule, and Louisville had played a couple of cupcakes leading into NC State while the Wolfpack had to play Syracuse the previous Saturday before playing the Cards on a short week.

JG: Yeah, those three teams have dominated the Atlantic Division and Dave Doeren had been 0-11 against those three teams going into this season. Any win over the group would have been considered a bonus. To possibly sweep those three? I don’t think anyone reasonably predicted that would be possible.

What have I missed? I didn’t intentionally leave out junior running back Nyheim Hines. I suppose I just see Finley’s arm as a bigger threat to the Irish defense. Is that foolish of me?

North Carolina State junior running back Nyheim Hines has rushed for 648 yards and six touchdowns this season with an average of 5.6 yards per carry. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

MC: Hines is one of the country’s leaders in all-purpose yards and has gotten some midseason All-American mention. Entering the bye he led all ACC running backs in rushing yards and was on pace for more than 1,000 yards. He singlehandedly kept NC State in the game during the first half against Pittsburgh when the Wolfpack looked like it was sleepwalking a little following that win over Louisville. In the second half, NC State asserted itself and outscored the Panthers 21-3.

The most underrated aspect of NC State this season, to me, is the offensive line. In four ACC games, Finley has not been sacked yet. Pitt did not even register a quarterback hurry in the last game. Both senior right guard Tony Adams and junior right tackle Will Richardson could be All-ACC candidates.

On the flipside, NC State’s special teams was sure to be a focal point in the bye because both placekicking and kick coverage have been a sore spot.

JG: Hines is a home-run hitter. He can be quiet at times and then he’ll pop one. The difference in the Louisville game was the receivers and the plays they were able to make down field.

I was shocked to see Notre Dame favored by more than a touchdown. How do you see Saturday afternoon going?
MC: It’s hard to ignore how impressive Notre Dame looked against USC. Dominating any opponent from a Power Five conference in that fashion is the sign of a really, really good football team. I get the feeling this is a game of two teams headed for special seasons on a collision course with each other. Typically in those types of settings, I might prefer the home squad.

I do think it will be a close, competitive game that could be decided by a late touchdown.

JG: I’ve got N.C. State winning 20-18. A play on Notre Dame’s loss to Georgia and 18 being double its point total in the previous two games against N.C. State (six in 2002 and three last year).
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