THE MATCHUP: PITT (2-4) VS NORTH CAROLINA STATE (5-1)
WHEN: 12:00 P.M. EST
WHERE: HEINZ FIELD, PITTSBURGH, PA
HOW TO WATCH: AT&T SPORTS NET PITTSBURGH
HOW TO LISTEN: 93.7 THE FAN & THE PITT IMG SPORTS NETWORK
It’s homecoming weekend for Pitt, the retro uniforms that everyone loves will be worn, and the first 30,000 fans to enter Heinz Field receive a James Conner bobblehead doll. The makings for a special Saturday afternoon are all in place, with just one exception:
Pitt is playing 20th ranked North Carolina State, who happens to be a pretty good team.
After posting a 7-6 record in 2016, North Carolina State is exceeding expectations in Dave Doeren’s fifth year as head coach. Following a 7-point loss to South Carolina on opening weekend, the Wolfpack have won five straight, including victories over Florida State, Syracuse and Louisville.
On offense, North Carolina State starts one running back, an H-back, two wide receivers, and either a tight end or a third wide receiver (the depth chart reflects 12 starters to support their flexibility with the last starter). Their 471 total yards-per-game is tied with Clemson for 25th in the FBS, with their 305.3 passing yards-per-game serving as the team’s relative strength. NC State also rarely concedes a turnover, ranking 3rd in the FBS with just three turnovers lost.
In his second season as the Wolfpack’s quarterback, Ryan Finley has become one of the more efficient passers in college football. The graduate transfer from Boise State has completed 158 of 223 passes with 10 touchdowns, and he has done so without throwing a single interception. On Monday, Coach Narduzzi labeled Finley as a “very smart quarterback,” calling attention to the player’s mind over his physical attributes.
“He does a great job of just managing the game,” said Narduzzi. “He doesn’t try to do too much. He’s obviously very intelligent. I don’t know what his GPA is, but based on watching him and what he does, how he manages the game, you can tell he’s probably a 4.0 guy that pays attention to details. He’s probably in the film room right now trying to dissect our defense and figure out what he can do and how he can do it and what tells him this, what tells him that. That’s what he does, and you can see it on tape.”
Finley has a number of weapons in the passing game from which to choose, but his favorite has been H-back Jaylen Samuels. Samuels, whose 50 receptions lead the team, was ESPN’s choice at tight end/H-back for their midseason All-American team. From his 50 receptions, the 5-foot-11-inch, 228-pound senior has accumulated 425 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. Samuels also contributes as a ball carrier, registering 25 rushing attempts for 129 yards and 5 touchdowns.
On the ground, the Wolfpack’s leading rusher is 5-foot-9-inch, 197-pound running back Nyheim Hines. The former 4-start recruit also runs track for NC State, earning 2017 first-team All-ACC honors in the 100m dash. Hines’ speed has helped him rush for 513 yards and 5 touchdowns on 100 carries.
The Wolfpack’s offensive line, which Coach Narduzzi called “big” and “physical” earlier in the week, deserves its fair share of credit for the team’s success. All five members of the line started for the Pack last season, including Tony Adams, a 2016 second-team All-ACC honoree. As a unit, they have allowed just 8 sacks this year.
On defense, the Wolfpack’s base 4-2-5 defense has experienced drastically different results in run and pass defense. If Pitt is looking to get its 107th ranked rushing attack back on track, it will be difficult to do so against NC State; they are allowing 90.7 rushing yards-per-game, good for 8th best in the FBS, and opponents are averaging just 3.1 yards-per-rush. However, the Wolfpack have struggled when defending the pass. Their 296.3 passing yards-per-game is tied for 121st in the FBS, placing them six spots behind Pitt.
The leader on NC State’s defense is defensive end Bradley Chubb. Chubb, a 6-foot-4-inch, 275-pound pass rushing terror, may be the best defensive player Pitt faces all season; CBSSports.com rates Chubb as the #3 defensive end prospect in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the 17th best player overall. The senior has 35 tackles, 14.0 tackles-for-loss (2nd in FBS), 6.5 sacks (T-3rd in FBS) and 1 forced fumble. Like Samuels, Chubb was named to ESPN’s midseason All-American team.
Although the Wolfpack’s entire defensive line has impressed this season, the other player to watch is senior defensive tackle Justin Jones. Jones has 16 tackles, 4.0 tackles-for-loss and 2.5 sacks on the season.
If there is a weakness on the Wolfpack’s defense, it is in their relatively inexperienced secondary, where two positions have an “or” on the depth chart. Senior Mike Stevens is the team’s most experienced cornerback with 22 starts, but he shares an “or” with Jonathan Alston as he recovers from an early-season knee injury. Alston, a former wide receiver, redshirted last season while learning the cornerback position. Now, as a senior, Alston is competing for the starting right cornerback position. Across from Stevens/Alston is Nick McCloud, a sophomore who entered the season with one start. And at nickel back, Shawn Boone receives the start after starting at strong safety in 2016.
Replacing Boone at strong safety this season is Jarius Morehead, a first year starter. And at free safety, the other “or” in the secondary appears. Regardless of who starts – Tim Kidd-Glass or Dexter Wright – he will be a first year starter as well.
Below is this week’s statistical comparison:
|Points Per Game||24.3||30.8||35.5||23.7|
|Yards Gained Rushing||893||1125||1131||721|
|Yards Lost Rushing||192||140||137||177|
|Average Yards Per Rush||3.3||4.5||4.3||3.1|
|Average Yards Per Game||116.8||164.2||165.7||90.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||242.0||280.3||305.3||296.3|
|Average Yards Per Play||5.2||6.6||6.2||5.7|
|Average Yards Per Game||358.8||444.5||471.0||387.0|
|KICK RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||17-349||12-219||16-383||23-522|
|PUNT RETURNS – RETURN YARDS||10-179||8-73||5-43||9-96|
|INTERCEPTION – RETURN YARDS||6-68||4-60||5-76||0-0|
|KICK RETURN AVERAGE||20.5||18.3||23.9||22.7|
|PUNT RETURN AVERAGE||17.9||9.1||8.6||10.7|
|INTERCEPTION RETURN AVERAGE||11.3||15.0||15.2||0.0|
|FUMBLES – FUMBLES LOST||6-4||8-5||7-3||4-4|
|PENALTIES – YARDS||23-221||27-203||34-288||49-391|
|Average Per Game||36.8||33.8||48.0||65.2|
|PUNTS – YARDS||29-1335||27-1110||23-996||25-1111|
|Net Yards Per Punt||41.5||34.5||37.0||41.1|
|TIME OF POSSESSION PER GAME||31:29||28:31||32:53||27:07|
|4th Down Percentage||69%||67%||70%||45%|
|SACKS BY – YARDS||9-64||18-154||17-109||8-56|
|Gallaspy II, Reggie||52||203||3.9||4||30|
On the injury front for North Carolina State, defensive end Donte Holden is questionable, while the following players are out: Riley Nicholson, Brock Miller, Dakwa Nichols, Dante Johnson, Marquise Braxton, James Valdez, Freddie Phillips, Jr., Trae Meadows, Erin Collins, Isaiah Moore and Xavier Lyles.
The biggest change to Pitt’s injury report this week comes at the quarterback position after Max Browne was lost for the season. Set to miss the game this week with Browne are Chawntez Moss, George Aston, Colton Lively, Tre Tipton, Michael Vardzel, Anthony McKee Jr., Quintin Wirginis and Malik Henderson.
WHERE TO WATCH/LISTEN
The first ACC meeting between Pitt and NC State kicks off at 12:00 Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field. The game will be aired on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh and can be heard on 93.7 the Fan. As always, Pittsburgh Sports Now and its staff will provide in-game updates and observations via Twitter.
North Carolina State will face Notre Dame and Clemson in its next two games, but don’t expect them to overlook the Panthers. The Wolfpack receives a bye next week, giving them two weeks to prepare for the Fighting Irish.
Once again, the pieces are in place for a special weekend at Heinz Field.
But it will be up to the Panthers to make it one.