It was about halfway through the season when redshirt sophomore Art Norman realized that he had not recorded a sack yet. The speedy defensive end was playing quite a bit and had gotten to the quarterback — he currently leads the team with 27 hurries — but it bugged him that he had been shut out in the sacks column through the first six games.
Norman decided he wasn't playing like he was as a redshirt freshman, when he doubled the amount of quarterback pressures anybody else on the team had recorded with 30, in addition to eight quarterback takedowns. Although he said he is a better player with a repertoire of moves this fall, he needed to go back to what worked so well in 2011.
"In the middle of the season, I went back and watched all of the film from last year, trying to see what I was doing different this year," he said. "There wasn't really anything too different, I feel like this year, I'm a better player because last year I didn't really have any moves, I just tried to get under people and use my height and quickness.
"I feel like last year, I just didn't want anybody to touch me, so I have tried to go back to that. This year, I have more moves and more confidence, I just had to go back to the basics, so that's what I've been doing the past couple of games."
Norman's change has worked to perfection. He leads a unit that is tied for 10th in the country with an average of three sacks per game with individual totals of 27 quarterback pressures and 4.5 sacks, which is tied for the team lead . He has recorded all of his sacks in the last four games, and notched 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and four pressures last Saturday against Wake Forest in a 37-6 victory.
"One of them was a coverage sack, the defensive backs were covering them and he didn't have anywhere to throw," Norman noted. "Everybody was just clicking on Saturday. Everybody was playing together, we all knew that we had to come out fast to win the game and get bowl eligible. Everybody on defense came out fast, we were clicking, and that's what will happen."
The Wolfpack would greatly benefit from another standout game by their best pass rusher on Saturday when they travel to Death Valley to face No. 11 Clemson. Last year, Norman had his coming out party when he tallied three sacks against the Tigers, who were ranked seventh nationally, in a 37-13 upset. He also forced a fumble, despite playing just 29 snaps in that game.
"That's the game that kind of got my name out there and made everyone aware of me," he remembered. "I had a really good game, it was another one of those big games that I knew I had to have to become a big-time player.
"I'm real excited [to face Clemson again]. I'm trying to have another big game like that. I know that we need it and it's another highly ranked team, so it's a big game and I know it can do us good if we win it."
Defensive coordinator Mike archer says getting pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd is key in trying to stopping an offense that averages 42.9 points and 513.8 yards per game, marks that both stand among the nation's top seven. Getting pressure from the defensive line, instead of just on blitzes, could really help the Pack stymie the Tigers' attack, and it's a positive that Norman has been trending in the right direction.
"It was good to see [Art's performance last week] because he had a big game against these guys last year," the coach said. "That's going to be very important.
"You've got to pick and choose your spots against these guys because you blitz then you get [wide receivers Sammy] Watkins and [DeAndre] Hopkins out there in one-on-one situations, and that's a little scary."
Luckily, the defensive line has found its groove and has really come together to help the team tally 18 sacks in the last five games. 13 of those quarterback takedowns have been recorded by players from State's front four, and they have been credited with all but one of the team's 14 sacks over the past four contests.
"We've come together and found what combinations work with what, who works with who, what moves and what plays work with each other," Norman said. "We're just gaining more experience. This is a new line, we lost [defensive tackles] Markus [Kuhn] and [J.R.] Sweezy from last year, so we're just trying to work with each other and see what combinations work with who. I think we're starting to figure it out.
"Pressure from the defensive line is going to be a big deal [on Saturday]. If we can rush three or four and get pressure, that'd be best. We all know Clemson has good receiver, as well as a good quarter. We can't give them much time to throw the ball to those receivers; we've got good defensive backs, but the less time they have, the better it is for us."