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November 23, 2013

Game breakdown: East Carolina

Video: Ruffin McNeill press conference

Keys To The Game

Play for the seniors: With last week's loss to Boston College, NC State was mathematically eliminated from earning a postseason bid in Dave Doeren's debut campaign. However, the team is still focused on sending the senior class out on a high note and starting some late-season momentum that can carry over to the spring and next year.

The team should also be playing with a sense of pride against in-state opponent East Carolina, which is arguably the best football team in the state — it's either the Pirates or Duke, who have identical 8-2 records. If the Pack can't get up for this game, even without bowl eligibility a possibility, there is a major problem.

Keep an eye on Justin Hardy: The 6-0 redshirt junior is one of the best stories in college football. The former walk-on earned first-team All-Conference USA honors as a wideout last year, in addition to second-team laurels as a punt returner, after he totaled 88 catches for 1,105 yards and 11 touchdowns — all of which stand among the top three single-season totals in school history.

This year, Hardy has already logged 1,047 receiving yards, which ranks 13th nationally, while his average of 8.7 catches per contest ranks fifth. He also averages 11.2 yards per punt runback, which ranks 18th, and he even spent time as a scout team quarterback during his first year on campus, so he's capable of successfully tossing a trick play (he has a 35-yard touchdown pass this year).

Hardy is capable of affecting the game in numerous ways and can change the outcome of a contest by himself. Twice this year he has recorded at least 16 receptions — and he finished with at least 191 yards through the air in each of those two games. He has recorded 638 receiving yards and four touchdowns in the last five contests, and ranks third in the nation with 50 receptions that have gone for 10 yards or more.

Limit ECU's possessions: NC State can't afford to give East Carolina extra possessions on turnovers, it's that simple. The Pirates rank 11th nationally with an average of 41.5 points per game, and their passing attack is ranked eighth with an average of 341.2 yards per contest. They're going to score with the ball, so it's all about limiting the number of touches the Pirates get.

The best way to keep ECU possessions to a minimum is playing smart and effectively running the ball to bleed the clock and control the pace of the game. The bad news for State is that ECU ranks eighth nationally in rush defense with an average of just 101.4 yards allowed per game on the ground. The Pirates have yielded an average of just 3.02 yards per rush and a total of seven ground touchdowns on the year. ECU also ranks 15th nationally in total defense (337.9 yards allowed per game) and 25th in scoring defense (21.5 points surrendered per contest).

Finish: This is a two-pronged key. First of all, the Pack must end its fourth-quarter struggles. Excluding the FSU contest, State has entered the final frame trailing by an average of just 7.1 points per contest in ACC tilts. The Wolfpack has been within one score in the second half of each of those six games, but opponents have held a 72-31 advantage in the final 15 minutes, and State has outscored its foe just once since opening the season 2-0.

The other key for NCSU will be to finish its drives. Most know ECU for an Air Raid-style offense, but the Pirates' defense has been impressive this year, especially in the red zone, which might be where the Pack offense has struggled the most this year.

East Carolina ranks seventh nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 68.8 percent of the time they penetrate the 20-yard line, which includes just 16 touchdowns in 32 chances. Meanwhile, NC State has scored on 24 of its 30 red-zone opportunities, but has found the end zone just 11 times.

Game outlook: NC State is going to have its hands full on Saturday. ECU has lost just two games this year, by a total of eight points. Since losing by three to Tulane on the road in overtime, the Pirates have averaged 52.5 points per game and outscored their four opponents 210-65.

While ECU is playing its best ball of the season over those last four games, the Pack is trying to get back on track. It will take a complete effort with minimal mistakes for State to pull it off, but maybe the energy of the home crowd and an opportunity to beat an in-state rival can help propel the team to ending its six-game losing streak.

Five East Carolina Players To Watch

Junior quarterback Shane Carden — The 6-2, 218-pounder has had only one subpar game this season, struggling in 15-10 loss to Virginia Tech Sept. 14. Carden threw for 158 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions against the Hokies. He bounced back to throw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, and rush for three scores, in a 55-31 win over North Carolina Sept. 28. He has set career highs by going 306-of-422 passing for 3,320 yards with 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he has rushed for seven scores this season.

Junior wide receiver Justin Hardy — The former walk-on from Vanceboro, N.C., has been one of the most productive wide receivers in the country the last two years. He is close to passing his numbers from last year, with 87 catches for 1,047 yards and seven touchdowns going into Saturday's game. He caught 17 passes for 230 yards against Tulane Oct. 12, and posted 16 catches for 191 yards in the season opener against Old Dominion Aug. 31. As a punt returner he is averaging 11.2 yards on 20 returns with a long of 66 yards. The 6-0, 186-pound Hardy has 239 career catches for 2,810 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Sophomore left tackle Ike Harris — The 6-7, 304-pounder from Irmo, S.C., who protects quarterback Shane Carden's blind side, has played in 22 games the last two years. ECU has racked up 476 yards or more in seven games this season. Harris and the offensive line have allowed 26 sacks on 436 pass attempts. On the ground, the Pirates are averaging 3.5 yards per carry.

Senior outside linebacker Derrell Johnson — The 6-2, 264-pound Johnson leads the Pirates with 62 tackles and 10.5 tackles for loss, and he has notched 4.5 sacks, one interception (last week against UAB), four passes defended, one forced fumble and eight quarterback pressures. Johnson earned second-team All-Conference USA honors last year, racking up 62 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He has made 45 career starts, the most of any current player on the Pirates. Johnson had 12 tackles against Virginia Tech Sept. 14, and a career-high 14 last year against Marshall.

Sophomore outside linebacker Montese Overton — The Greenville, N.C., native has made 36 tackles and nine tackles for loss, and he leads the Pirates with six sacks for minus-58 yards (three against Florida International Nov. 2), despite coming off the bench. The 6-3, 220-pounder also has forced a fumble and broken up a pair of passes. Overton had 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack in eight games last year, but was limited by a left knee injury. The former Rivals.com two-star prospect claimed offers from NC State, Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina out of South Central High, but has gained 24 pounds since then.

Three Matchups To Watch

1. Virginia Tech showed the defensive blueprint in defeating East Carolina and slowing down junior quarterback Shane Carden. The Hokies notched seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss and three interceptions, and they held ECU to 3 of 11 on third-down conversions. Carden was limited to 19-of-31 passing for 158 yards with one touchdown and three picks. The offensive struggles gave VT a 36:43-23:17 time of possession advantage.

NC State defensive tackles Monty Nelson, a freshman, and juniors Thomas Teal and T.Y. McGill will need to help collapse the pocket and make life uncomfortable for Carden.

2. NC State was gashed by the Boston College running game for 420 yards on 53 carries. ECU is known for its passing game, but senior running back Vintavious Cooper has provided the Pirates a balanced attack this season.

The 5-9, 200-pound Cooper isn't Andre Williams of BC, but he has recorded more than 100 yards of total offense in five games this season. Cooper has rushed for 754 yards and nine touchdowns on 163 carries, plus caught 34 passes for 343 yards and a score in 2013.

Cooper ran wild on UNC, totaling 186 yards on 35 carries while catching eight passes for 70 yards in the 55-31 win Sept. 28. Cooper also had 87 rushing yards and two touchdowns, and 84 yards receiving, in the 36-33 overtime loss at Tulane Oct. 12, along with 126 rushing yards and three touchdowns in last week's 63-14 win over UAB.

3. ECU junior wide receiver Justin Hardy played quarterback at Vanceboro (N.C.) West Craven High, and passed for about 2,500 yards and rushed for 1,500 his senior year in 2009. He had also made an impact in his junior year by catching 80 passes for 1,001 yards and nine scores at wide receiver.

Hardy ended up walking on at ECU and was essentially a scout team quarterback in 2010 during his redshirt year. He moved to wide receiver, and in his first game he caught 11 passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in a loss at South Carolina Sept. 3, 2011.

Hardy has caught double-digit passes in eight different games, including four this season. NCSU redshirt sophomore cornerback Juston Burris has tried to blanket passing targets such as Boston College's Alex Amidon, Wake Forest's Michael Campanaro and Duke's Jamison Crowder, and Hardy is next in line.

Three Questions With East Carolina Head Coach Ruffin McNeill

What do you know about NC State first-year head coach Dave Doeren?

"I've known Dave for quite a long time — 15 years to be exact. When he was a graduate assistant at Southern Cal and I was at Fresno State, we would go down and visit and talk football. Dave, at that time, was a graduate assistant, but he would take all of the visiting staffs and actually talk ball. We do it now with our GA's, so they can learn how to deliver and present in front of groups. It's just a part of a teaching tool that you can use. I knew he wouldn't be an assistant for long.

"I have a lot of respect for Dave, not just as a coach, but also as a friend. He's a great recruiter, he's going to do a great job over there at NC State and he's building the program the way he wants to do it."

How is this year's NC State's squad on offense?

"Offensively, they've rotated two quarterbacks in Pete Thomas and Brandon Mitchell. Both of them are transfers. Pete is from Colorado State and Brandon is from Arkansas.

"They both have the ability to run, and Dave has designed quarterback runs with both. He is also getting his system in from shifts and motions to closed sets, to open sets, and you can see the same things Dave did at NIU with this group."

What are NC State's defensive attributes this season?

"They're No. 3 in the conference over there in pass defense and Robert Caldwell stands out. He's another big linebacker like the linebacker [Shawn Jackson] from Tulsa, who moves very well. He's big, covers ground well, and he's strong.

"Dontae Johnson, Art Norman and Thomas Teal are guys who, especially inside, you see them cause double teams."

Three Questions With NC State Head Coach Dave Doeren

What do you think of 8-2 ECU, which has split with Virginia Tech (loss) and North Carolina (win) from the ACC this season?

"ECU is a very good football team. Coach McNeill, Ruffin and I have known each other for a long time and I have a lot of respect for him. I like Ruffin a lot as a person.

"I've been on that side of it in the MAC, when you play a Big Ten team. For them playing an ACC team, I understand what is going on their campus, their locker room and their meetings room right now.

"It's a chip on your shoulder game for us and them. For us, we have a lot to prove. We want to play well for our seniors and finish the season in the right way. We are playing a very good football team."

How is East Carolina's defense this year?

"They are very experienced on defense. They have seven seniors and two juniors on their defense. No. 56 [Derrell] Johnson is a really good football player for them. He plays outside linebacker and rush end, and plays hard, physical, tough.

"They are only giving up 21 points per game and 101 yards rushing per game, and have 32 sacks and have created 19 takeaways. They do a nice job schematically."

ECU is known for its offense, and this year is no different it appears. What have you noticed about their offensive balance this season?

"They are very explosive and score a lot of points. They've become more balanced. They are throwing the ball well with 340 yards passing and 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions.

"Their pass game, as you expect as it has been good for a long time, is where it was. They have two receivers that are playing extremely well in Justin Hardy and Isaiah Jones."

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