Pitt has continued its hot start to the season with a close victory of Louisville last Saturday. The 23-20 win against a high-octane offense showed the Pitt defense prove themselves and get attention on the national level. With Big Ten and Pac-12 teams being ranked this week, the Panthers fell to 24th overall, but nonetheless, they are ranked with a chance to improve to 4-0 against the NC State Wolfpack this Saturday at Heinz Field.
The Wolfpack was shellacked by Virginia Tech last week. What does NC State bring to the table?
NC State’s Schemes
With new offensive coordinator Tim Beck coming on board for the 2020 season, the Wolfpack has a new scheme to work with this year. Beck was the coordinator who made Sam Ehlinger a star at Texas over the course of his stint with the Longhorns. At the root of the scheme, Beck is trying to emphasize different looks out of unique formations. This means new exotic ways to run basic things like 12 personnel and 11 personnel. In fact, a lot of the plays are the same play run out of different looks. The goal of the offense is to try to find the coverages used against different looks and beat them out of a different set. Through the air, that is the name of the game for Beck’s offense.
The running game is where this really gets unique. Beck runs a combination of outside zone, inside zone, split zone, mid zone, read-option, and power. The running backs all have burst and hit the hole with quickness and explosiveness. However, they run it with some unique action. The running back steps almost feign as if they are running draw, even with the lineman’s feet giving off a different impression. The angled handoff and blocking allow the running back to run the full head of steam through that opening that the offensive line opens up. This is something Urban Meyer used to do in the past, and Beck adopted this scheme.
While NC State will likely primarily win on the ground, they mix it up on quick concepts through the air. Expect lots of slants, out routes, shallow crosses, mesh plays, and other quick hitters that the Wolfpack can use. In addition, they do like to take advantage of some speed they have in the slot with a slot fade route. Screens are also common, with bubble screens showing themselves a good deal. The thing that really makes the scheme unique is just the looks they run this all out of on any given play. The mixing and matching of players and personnel are unique to keep the defense on their heels.
As for the defense, Pitt will yet again face another team with a 3-3-5 defense as their main base. This is nothing new for the Panthers, as they have faced Syracuse and Louisville, who are 3-3-5 teams at their heart. All this does is adds an extra safety as a linebacker at the second level. This mainly helps in coverage, and the Panthers have been slowed by it for the past two weeks. The difference for the Wolfpack is the defensive line technique. They love to allow their defensive line to ‘slant’ technique. It is a way to try and get big tackles for loss and rattle the quarterback. NC State tries to shore this up with either Cover 2 or Cover 3 shells on the back end and often gets burnt for it. Their defensive backs are often left on an island, and with only modest defensive back talent, pushing the ball downfield can really hurt this defense. The explosive play is their kryptonite.
Players to Watch
DL Alim McNeil
Arguably the best player on the team period, McNeil is an explosive athlete who creates disruption all game. McNeil is a player that fans will be watching on Sundays. He plays with great pad level and has the strength to walk back interior lineman with ease. His hot motor allows him to cover lots of ground for a defensive lineman. As a three-technique in the Wolfpack system, McNeil is a problem that Pitt must take care of along the offensive line if they want to keep Kenny Pickett upright.
RB Zonovan Knight
Part of the duo of backs that NC State uses along with Ricky Person Jr., Knight is going to be the key cog in the Wolfpack offense if they are to get anything going against this fantastic Pitt defense. The offensive line’s bread and butter are getting movement up front, and Knight’s impressive athleticism and toughness is a fantastic fit for what they want to do upfront. Knight is a smart running back with legitimate shiftiness to make people miss in the open field. They also trust Knight to work out of the backfield as a receiver often.
CB Shyheim Battle
NC State has quite the promising freshman on the back end in Shyheim Battle. With two pass deflections on the year thus far, Battle has been far and away the best cornerback on the team. Even in the shellacking from the Hokies last week, Battle did not surrender a touchdown. A four-star recruit, his length, fluidity, and physicality are all appreciated by the Wolfpack on a back end that is desperately clinging to quality cornerback play as much as they can.
Matchup to Watch
Pitt Defensive Line vs NC State Offensive Line
Cliche matchup choice? Absolutely. The most pivotal matchup of the game? Absolutely.
The Pitt defensive line is on a tear and leads the NCAA in sacks with 17 on the year. This is an NC State offensive line that is porous in pass protection at their best. They can get some movement upfront in the running game, but it has always been the pressure in the passing game that has halted the quality of this offense’s drives. It does not get easier for them as they face an elite defensive line in Pitt. If the Panthers can get consistent pressure all game, it will be a long day for the Wolfpack.