NC State lost to Duke last Saturday, but there were some positives for the Pack to build on as they enter the final stretch of the season. The defense held Duke to 17 points - they also returned a kickoff, as well as two interceptions, for touchdowns to reach their final tally of 38 - and 321 yards of total offense, which was the Blue Devils' third lowest output of the year.
The defensive line started the game without two members of the defensive tackle rotation - redshirt sophomore Carlos Gray, who has started five games and totaled three tackles for loss this year, and senior A.J. Ferguson, who has one start and five games played, plus fifth-year senior defensive end Forrest West, who has appeared in seven of the team's nine contests.
Star redshirt junior defensive tackle Thomas Teal, who is tied for the team lead with 8.5 tackles for loss, was also sidelined during the third quarter with an injury, but he did not appear on this week's injury report and is expected back against Boston College. Gray and West are also expected to play Saturday.
It was just another example of the hard luck NC State has suffered this season with injuries, but the shorthanded front was key in limiting Duke to 4.9 yards per play - the lowest clip of any Pack opponent in the ACC this year - and less than four yards per carry.
There wasn't any one singular standout among the eight big men that logged action up front. It was a true team effort - redshirt defensive end Drew Davis led the way with five tackles, while Teal combined with redshirt junior defensive end Art Norman for a sack.
"I thought this last week our defensive line played the best they had played all year," defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable noted. "Their fundamentals and techniques were outstanding and I continue to see those guys [improve]. They're a hard-working group and Coach [Ryan] Nielsen coaches them hard. He's a great teacher and I just continue to see those continuing to get better."
Huxtable's unit also forced four Blue Devil turnovers, including a trio of interceptions, and limited their opponents to three third-down conversions on 15 tries.
"It was a disappointing loss, as is any loss," he said. "The guys came out and played hard. I was just disappointed that we couldn't come away with the win."
The defensive performance against Duke was the continuation of the improvements the unit showed in the final three quarters of the Florida State contest. After they gave up 35 points to the nation's second-ranked squad in the opening quarter, they allowed just 14 points the rest of the game. In two contests since, opposing offenses have scored 44 points, averaged 3.99 yards per rush, turned the ball over five times and converted on just eight of 30 third-down tries.
It wasn't just the defensive line that put in a positive performance against Duke. Junior linebacker Brandon Pittman, who Huxtable noted continues to improve, led the unit in the middle of the defense and had a career game; he finished with a game-best 14 stops, including three tackles for loss and a sack. Fellow linebackers D.J. Green and Robert Caldwell both logged at least five tackles and snared interceptions in the contest, as well.
Huxtable knows that his defense, especially the front seven, will need to show up again on Saturday in order for the team to have a chance against Boston College's physical, smash mouth offense.
The Eagles boast the nation's leading rusher in 6-foot, 227-pound wrecking ball Andre Williams. The senior is one of 10 national seminfinalists for the Doak Walker Award, annually given to the nation's top back, and has totaled 1,471 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground this year. He is coming off of a school-record 295-yard rushing performance, where he won the game with touchdown runs of 80 and 47 yards with less than five minutes to go in regulation that ended up being the difference in the game.
"He's a big, strong runner," Huxtable said. "We've got to get roll call on the ball and get a lot of hats to it. We've got to be perfect in our fits and have guys change the math by getting off blocks. He's got the speed to go with the size.
"We've got to stop the run, that's where it's going to start. They're going to come out and run the football, they're going to run him 40 times a game. The key for us is to stop the run and to do that we've got to be where we're supposed to be, we've got to defeat blocks, change the math and then we've got to have more guys than one making a play."
Boston College may only average 162.8 yards through the air per game, but they do have a dangerous weapon out wide in senior wide receiver Alex Amidon, the school's career leader in receiving yardage. Through nine games, he has totaled 57 catches for 726 yards and four touchdowns; the team's next leading receiver has just 10 catches on the year.
"He is their go-to guy and he does a great job of getting himself open," Huxtable said. "We've always got to have an awareness of where he's at."