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November 22, 2013

Linebackers will be key once again vs. ECU



It's hard to imagine NC State playing two more different offenses in back-to-back weeks than the smashmouth, run-oriented attack of Boston College, followed by the Air Raid, aerial-based spread system that East Carolina employs.

But that's exactly the challenge that defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable and his team will face Saturday, when they are tasked with trying to shut down a unit that ranks eighth nationally in passing offense (341.2 passing yards per game) and 10th in scoring (41.5 points per game).

Luckily for them, seeing the spread is nothing new; in fact, the smashmouth BC attack was the anomaly in today's game.

"We've played the spread offense before — going against our offense itself and a lot of other teams this year," Huxtable noted. "Last week was a big change from what we've been practicing against and playing against, but now we're back to something that we've played against several times. We're preparing for that and getting ready to come out and play well."

The ECU offense is powered by the excellent quarterback-wide receiver combination of juniors Shane Carden and Justin Hardy. Carden is a second-year starter who ranks third nationally in points responsible for (216), third in completion percentage (.725), fourth in touchdown throws (29), sixth in passing yards per game (332.0), seventh in total offense per game (336.3) and 14th in passing efficiency rating (158.0). He has also totaled 15 rushing touchdowns in the past two years.

"He's a big, strong kid," Huxtable noted. "When he runs the football, he's not afraid to lower his shoulder and I think he does a really nice job of running their offense."

Meanwhile, Hardy is a six-foot, former walk-on, who is the first player in program history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons. This year, he ranks fifth nationally in receptions per game (8.7), 13th in receiving yards (1,047) and 18th in punt return average (11.3).

"He's an extremely skilled athlete and he's just a competitor," the Pack's defensive coordinator said. "You can see him compete on film; he makes the tough catches, he strains and fights for the ball. On top of his athleticism, he's a guy that you can see really enjoys playing the game and he plays really hard."

Hardy has more than double the number of receptions of the Pirates' next leading receiver, rookie Isaiah Jones (41 catches for 405 yards and five touchdowns), but he is far from the team's only offensive weapon. In addition to the promising Jones, there are several other receivers who are capable of making plays and the aerial attacks are complimented by senior running back Vintavious Cooper, a former JuCo transfer who debuted with a 1,000-yard season last year. He has totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns already this campaign.

Obviously the play of the NCSU secondary will be huge, but with the presence of Cooper and the plethora of short, quick passes and crossing routes that the Pirates like to utilize, the linebacking corps will also be key for NC State this weekend.

They stepped up last weekend when the three starters combined for 34 tackles, including four tackles for loss and a sack against Boston College. The week before against Duke, the trio combined for 25 tackles, including three for loss and a sack, plus two interceptions.

Junior weakside linebacker Brandon Pittman has been the breakout star during that span with 24 tackles, including four for loss and two sacks. The defensive coordinator noted that Pittman was up and down at the beginning of the year, but since he appeared in the North Carolina game off the bench, he's been extremely productive.

"The last couple of games, I've really seen Brandon take a step forward and be the kind of player that I believe he can be," Huxtable noted. "He's extremely talented and I think his best football is still ahead of him.

"I think it has [clicked for him]. I think Brandon realizes his potential and I think he wants to reach that potential. He has worked real hard at it and together we're going to continue to work to get the most out of him."

While Pittman has been great the last two weeks, senior middle linebacker Robert Caldwell actually led the way last Saturday with an impressive 17 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage. Huxtable noted that both defenders have made strides this year, but there is still work to be done.

"Robert has been a guy that since he took over the starting role at Mike linebacker a couple of games into the season he has done a nice job for us," he said. "He's made some mistakes, but he has done a nice job for us playing that Mike linebacker position; I've seen him make steps of improvement throughout the season."

Huxtable knows that all three of his linebackers, including senior D.J. Green, who has recorded 12 tackles and an interception over the past two weeks, will play a key role in Saturday's tilt with ECU.

"They'll be huge in Saturday's game in both the run game and those [short] routes," he said. "We've got to play smart, be where we're supposed to be and doing our job."




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