No. 7 Clemson heads to Carter Finley Stadium on Saturday for its first true road game of the season against North Carolina State. Here are five things to know about the Wolfpack:
The offense is experienced, and it’s showing
N.C. State is like a lot of teams when it comes to veteran experience with the NCAA granting a free year of eligibility last season amid the coronavirus pandemic. On offense, the Wolfpack have eight starters back, but they have quality depth on that side of the ball, too.
Quarterback Devin Leary, who’s back from a broken leg that cut his 2020 season short, leads the way. But N.C. State has its top three rushers and top three receivers back from last season as well as four starting offensive linemen.
That’s translated over to the field so far. The Wolfpack are fifth in the ACC in total offense and passing yards (274 yards per game) and in the top half of the league in rushing (181). Their 455 total yards per game also rank 31st nationally.
Speaking of Leary…
He could be the best QB Clemson has seen so far
Leary has shown no ill effects from the injury that limited him to four games last season. In fact, he’s been one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks early in the season.
His 264.7 passing yards per game are fifth-most in the league, and he’s got a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Leary also ranks fifth in the ACC in completion percentage (67.3) and seventh in total offense (262 yards per game).
“That quarterback is a baller,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Leary. “Excellent thrower, athletic and really understands their scheme.”
Of course, many were saying the same thing about Georgia’s J.T. Daniels before Clemson held him to 135 yards passing on 30 attempts and picked him off once in the Tigers’ opening loss. The combination of Clemson’s talent and scheme will certainly be the best defense Leary has seen so far, but he could be the stiffest test the Tigers’ secondary has faced, too.
Their defense, particularly against the run, is stout
As experienced as N.C. State’s offense is, the defense was even more seasoned coming into the season with all but one starter back on that side of the ball. And even with linebacker Payton Wilson and safety Cyrus Fagan lost for the season to injuries, offenses have had a difficult time mustering yards and points, particularly on the ground.
This will be one of the biggest tests of the season for Clemson’s offensive line so far in terms of establishing the line of scrimmage and getting push up front. N.C. State is allowing just 72.7 rushing yards on average for the nation’s 15th-best run defense — one spot behind Georgia. Their 2.7 yards allowed per rush are second-fewest in the ACC.
And thanks in part to that, N.C. State’s defense is getting off the field on the money down far more often than not. The Wolfpack is allowing teams to convert on third down just 20.9% of the time. Only Rutgers, Boston College, South Alabama and Wisconsin have been better in that department among FBS teams.
To put that in even more perspective, Clemson, which has a pretty good defense of its own, is allowing teams to convert just 26.1% of its third downs.
They lost to the only Power Five team they’ve played
N.C. State hasn’t exactly played the stiffest competition, though. Most of its production — and the Wolfpack’s only two wins — has come against a Group of Five opponent (South Florida) and an FCS team (Furman).
The Wolfpack’s lone game to this point against a Power Five team resulted in a 24-10 loss at Mississippi State. While one of the Bulldogs’ touchdowns came on 100-yard opening kickoff return, N.C. State didn’t do itself any favors by committing three turnovers. Leary threw his only two interceptions in that game.
And N.C. State couldn’t run the ball. The Wolfpack finished with just 34 yards on the ground on 25 attempts, which comes out to a measly 1.4 yards per attempt. That doesn’t bode well when you’re about to face a defense like Clemson’s.
They’ve been nearly perfect at home the last two seasons
N.C. State has been a tough out at Carter Finley Stadium since the beginning of the 2020 season.
The Wolfpack have won seven of eight at home since then, and they’ve given ranked teams plenty of fits there of late. N.C. State beat the last ranked team to visit Carter Finley, handing then-No. 21 Liberty a 15-14 loss over last November. That came two weeks after the Wolfpack gave then-No. 11 Miami all it could handle in a 44-41 loss.
They started their home slate this season by shutting out South Florida before throttling Furman, 45-7, last week in front of a home crowd. Their last seven home wins have come by an average of nearly 16 points.
Clemson, ranked fifth at the time, handed N.C. State a 55-10 loss the last time it made the trip to Raleigh in 2019.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!