Dave Doeren gets it. He has coached in Death Valley before. He saw firsthand what an atmosphere like Clemson’s can do to a quarterback and to an offense.
Death Valley, along with the Clemson defense, ambushed what at the time was the best offense in the ACC when Doeren’s NC State team came to Tigertown two years ago. The Tigers’ No. 1 ranked defense got after then quarterback Jacoby Brissett, sacking him three times, forcing a fumble and pressuring him 10 other times in a 41-0 victory.
The Wolfpack, who will visit Clemson on Saturday, was held to a season-low 156 total yards, while Brissett completed just 4-of-18 passes for 35 yards. Brissett came into that game leading the ACC in passing yards, total offense, completion percent and passing efficiency.
But that was two years ago, and though NC State comes to Death Valley again with a 4-1 record, it has a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator and a new offense this time.
Eliah Drinkwitz came to Raleigh this past off-season from Boise State, and brought with him more than just his West Coast offense. He also brought along graduate student and quarterback Ryan Finely, who understands the system and is a veteran starter that has played in big games before.
But has Finley played in Death Valley? Ask Louisville’s offensive line about the noise factor and role the 83,000 fans can play in the outcome.
“It’s a great environment. I don’t care where you’ve played,” Doeren said. “Right now they’re the third ranked team in the country. They’re going to have great fan support. Obviously, homecoming probably adds to it.”
However, Doeren says Finley isn’t just any quarterback. Experience matters and he has played in some hostile environments before. He quarterbacked Boise State at BYU last season in front of 63,000 fans, and this season directed the Wolfpack’s offense in front of nearly 51,000 at East Carolina.
“One thing I like about Ryan, he’s very smart,” Doeren said. “He’s very poised. He knows where to go with the football. He’s a guy that can get himself into a rhythm pretty quickly.”
But Finley has never played in Death Valley. Though he played at BYU, he did get rattled into throwing three interceptions in a 35-24 loss. And though he did not throw an interception or turn the football over at East Carolina, the Pirates still won the game, 33-30.
“He just needs to be what he has been for the entire season, except for the Notre Dame game, where nobody could throw a ball. He’s been very efficient,” Doeren said. “He just needs to be himself. He doesn’t need to try to do any more than that. Just manage the game and the plays will be there for him.”
So far, Finley has completed 69.5 percent of his passes, which ranks third in the country. He has nine touchdown passes to zero interceptions and his 161.3 pass efficiency rating is ranked third among ACC quarterbacks.
“He is a very accurate and very efficient and he knows their system inside and out,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He is a good football player that is playing really well for them.”
Finley has played well, but his detractors will say he has done it against William & Mary, East Carolina, Old Dominion and Wake Forest. The Notre Dame game was a wash because of all the effects from Hurricane Matthew.
Clemson, which is ranked No. 8, is clearly the best defense Finley and the Wolfpack have seen to this point. The Tigers (6-0, 3-0 ACC) lead the ACC in tackles for loss and are tied with Pitt for first place in sacks. Clemson ranks in the top 10 nationally in 10 of the 11 major defensive categories.
“My job on the defensive line is to put pressure on (the quarterback) to cause those mistakes,” Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins said. “The secondary has played very well and been very disciplined. When we put pressure on them, that’s when mistakes happen.”