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October 9, 2013

Offense fighting through injuries, uncertainty




NC State went through fall camp in August looking for a quarterback. Arkansas graduate transfer Brandon Mitchell won the job, but lasted three series against Louisiana Tech after breaking a bone in his foot.

The Wolfpack turned to Colorado State redshirt junior Pete Thomas, who has gotten better each week in managing the offense.

Mitchell could play against Syracuse this Saturday, but nothing has been determined yet.

"This doesn't feel like August at all because we are five games in," said NCSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada on going through quarterback uncertainty for the second time since the start of fall camp. "We'll see how it turns out on Saturday."

Thomas played in Saturday's 28-13 loss at Wake Forest without left tackle Rob Crisp, backup tailback Matt Dayes, starting wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and the most of the game without starting wide receiver Rashard Smith, who got injured on a kick return with 2:05 left in the first quarter.

Thomas went 27-of-43 passing for 257 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions (one on a Hail Mary to end the game). He also rushed for 60 yards on 15 carries.

"He had one critical play at a critical time," said Canada about his first interception deep in WFU territory to cornerback Kevin Johnson. "Pete is playing extremely hard and doing everything he could possibly do to help us win. You always want to be perfect, but you can't make decisions like that. He is playing very well and hard."

The interception was one of three series where NC State left some potential points on the board.

NC State stalled twice in the red zone, settling for a 27-yard field goal by junior Niklas Sade in the second quarter, and a 20-yarder by Sade in the third. The latter was setting up for a potential four-downs situation until sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton went for zero yards on a toss sweep to the left.

Wake Forest's bend but don't break defense Saturday had the Wolfpack reach the 15-yard line prior to Sade's first field goal. Thomas completed two out of three passes to advance five yards, but had to settle for the field goal.

The Wolfpack offense reached the nine-yard line but two Thornton runs netted two yards, and a pass to redshirt junior fullback Tyler Purvis gained four.

"We missed two chances to score touchdowns and kicked two field goals," Canada said. "We had chances to score and didn't execute them. That is eight points right there, and then you have a chance to do something later going down. It's a different game if you score there."

Fifth-year senior wide receiver Quintin Payton emerged in the absence of Valdes-Scantling and Smith, catching six passes for 98 yards and a 11-yard touchdown.

"We have a lot of good players and he made some big plays," Canada said. "That one catch on the sideline was a great catch. He made some good plays. He is healthy and played hard."

Clemson scored 35 of its 49 points in the first half in an eventual 49-14 blowout at Syracuse. The Tigers racked up 27 first downs and 626 total yards in the win, with four of the touchdowns going for at least 40 yards or more. It's the second straight week where NC State's opponent is coming off being blown out by No. 3-ranked Clemson.

"We study what they do on defense and try to find what our players do well, and take advantage of what they can," Canada said. "They are a very good defense and a physical defense. They get after people and they have forever."

Canada expects Syracuse to play fast and physical. The Orange have 15 sacks, seven interceptions and four forced fumbles this season. Senior middle linebacker Marquis Spruill is second on the team with 27 tackles, five tackles for loss and two sacks.

"They are one of the most physical defenses around certainly that we've seen," Canada said. "He [Spruill] is a good player."

Syracuse appears to be strongest up the middle with the 6-foot-1, 224-pound Spruill complemented by senior defensive tackle Jay Bromley and sophomore strong safety Durell Eskridge. The 6-4, 285-pound Bromley had a team-high eight tackles for loss, five sacks and two forced fumbles, to go along with his 18 tackles. The 6-3, 207-pound Eskridge leads the Orange with 28 tackles, and has one interception and 1.5 tackle for loss.

The returning Syracuse defensive players helped the Orange win six out of the last seven games last year, including wins over bowl-bound programs such as Louisville and West Virginia.

"It's a great defensive scheme and a bunch of tough players, who play hard," Canada said. "They are fast, big, all of that. They run to the football and play with great passion."

Syracuse's defense is able to play off its crowd noise in the dome. That won't be the case Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.

"Playing in our stadium has been awesome, and it's been like that for a long, long time," Canada said. "Everybody around here knows that and I'm learning it. I'm really appreciative of our fans, and our students are unbelievable. I'm excited to coach here because of that passion."


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