Defense looking to continue improvements

From the season opener with Tennessee to the second game against UConn, the NC State defense made huge strides. Improvements were evident on all three levels - the defensive tackles played more and helped the line be much more effective, the linebackers made plays and helped a strong front seven limit the Huskies' ground attack and the Wolfpack's experienced secondary took last season's form in forcing four turnovers.
"Obviously, we did a much better job of eliminating explosive plays," defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. "They only had two explosive plays - the 43-yard pass that set up their one touchdown, that hurt - but when you eliminate those, you have a good chance, and we shut their running game down. I think they had 32 rushes for 35 yards, and when you do that, you can get them in predictable, long-yardage situations and you've got a better chance for success on third down.
"Where we were poor against Tennessee, we improved - we were better on first down and we were much better on third down, they were two for 12 and 0-2 on fourth down. The stats don't lie. When you play good on those down and create turnovers - which we did - you usually win."
The Pack defense set the tone early, despite UConn starting with great field position, and that helped get the momentum going, according to Archer.
"I think maybe the most important thing was, early in the game, when we were in some tough field position situations, we forced three-and-outs five straight times," he said. "That may have been the most important thing because they had great field position and could have put points on the board, but we responded."
According to team captain and starting middle linebacker Sterling Lucas, the unit in the middle of the defense made a huge jump mentally, which helped them step up their play on the field.
"It was just coming out and recognizing formations," he said. "We practiced hard throughout the whole week and, like I tell a lot of people, [linebackers] Coach [Jon] Tenuta does a great job of getting us prepared. Everything starts with vision - when you can see the formation and know what they're going to do before they do it. That helps you play that much faster."
Lucas led the team with eight stops against UConn, while fellow linebackers Rickey Dowdy and Rodman Noel tied for second with seven tackles apiece. This season is the first time either defender has logged significant action, so it's no surprise that they made a big jump between their first and second games, according to Lucas.
"I've seen those guys get more comfortable out there," he said. "I feel like last game, they were more comfortable because they have trained their eyes. It's all about vision and training your eyes to see the formation and seeing what they can do to attack from certain formations.
"Rickey is doing a great job. He has come out and played with confidence. He seems like he is catching on fast. He's done a great job of watching film and that helps him know things before they happen."
"Rickey is making improvements and Rodman obviously saw more action than he has since he's been here, he took advantage of that," Archer noted. "Sterling did a very consistent job of getting us in the right defenses. We still have a ways to go. We've got to eliminate a lot of things and we've got a lot of correctable things, but there was improvement, which is the positive thing."
Strides were also noticeable from the defensive tackles, who played considerably more in the second game, with the Pack not worried about the spread attack and speed that Tennessee presented. The improved line play helped keep the linebackers clean from the offensive linemen, which Lucas noted makes his job much easier.
"Now, [the defensive tackles] have to take the next step," Archer said. "We hope they continue to make that same improvement. We have to be able to dominate inside and keep the linebackers able to run. The important thing is they've got to keep guys off our backers."
However, the Pack must move on from last week and prepare to host South Alabama, whose offense will bring different threats to the table than UConn, who wanted to rely on a power running attack.
"This team is going to be a little bit different," Archer noted. "They're going to spread you out and they've got athletes since they're coming from the south. They've got 12 division I transfers, they've got kids that can play. The one running back had 117 yards against us last year, but it's going to be a little bit different type of game.
"They've got explosive people outside. They're going to play five wide receivers that can all run. We played against three of them last year and they had people open last year, but they dropped two that could've been touchdowns. We've looked at that film and it's going to be a little bit different challenge [than last year] in that those guys are a little bit better."
Lucas said the first two games have been a learning experience for the defense, but the 1-1 start has not changed the team's expectations at all.
"We just need to not give up the big plays and stay consistent," he said. "When all 11 guys are doing their jobs, we're a pretty good defense. We just have to stay consistent and do our jobs.
"We had a goal in mind of winning the ACC Championship and we haven't even opened ACC play, so I feel like we can be a pretty good team."