NC State has won five of its last six games against ranked opponents, including all three contests against teams ranked in the nation's top 16. They hope to continue their upset success this afternoon when they travel to Death Valley for a 3:30 kickoff against Clemson.
Here are The Wolfpacker's keys to the game:
Get off to a good start
It's no secret that you can usually tell how an NC State game is going to go by the end of the first quarter. In their four losses, the Pack has been outscored 84-28 in the opening quarter; in their six wins, State has outscored foes by a total of 52-13.
The only game where NC State allowed a touchdown in the opening frame and still won was against The Citadel. They trailed after 15 minutes against both Florida State and Maryland, but it was just a 3-0 deficit in each contest.
On the road in a tough environment like Death Valley, it's especially imperative that the Red and White gets off to a good start. State has not won a game at Clemson since 2002, and the Tigers have won 12 in a row at home, which is a school record.
Clemson's offense has set records and last weekend they became the first ACC team to ever score 37 or more points in nine straight contests. They have averaged 44.8 points per game during the streak, and a big factor in their success has been how quickly they start on offense. The Tigers have held the lead at halftime of every game this season, and they average 28 points, 7.2 yards per play and 306 yards of total offense in the first half. In the last three games, they have been even better and have tallied at least 35 points before the break in each outing.
Limit the big plays
In addition to slow starts, another disturbing trend in Wolfpack losses has been a high number of big plays allowed and that is exactly what the Clemson offense specializes in. Wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, as well as running back Andre Ellington, are a threat to score anytime they touch the ball and the trio has combined for 37 plays of at least 20 yards and 26 scores this year, although Watkins has missed three games.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd has five rushing touchdowns of his own, in addition to three runs of at least 30 yards, while tight end Brandon Ford has six receiving touchdowns and five catches that have covered 20 yards or more. Overlooked wide out Martavis Bryant is another guy that some Pack defenders have pointed out specifically, and although he has just eight catches, he averages over 30 yards per catch, and has six plays of at least 20 yards and three touchdowns on the year.
Nobody expects NC State to shut down Clemson's offense, but they do need to limit the quick-strike scoring plays. The Pack defense must force Clemson to work for their yardage and scores. In State's four losses, the defense has allowed 24 scoring drives, 11 of which have needed less than five plays. The unit has allowed just six such scoring drives in their six victories.
Win the turnover battle
NC State has turned the ball over just six times in its six wins, but they have been dominated in the turnover margin during their four losses. In the team's defeats, the Pack has lost the turnover battle 19-5.
If the team gives Clemson a significant amount of extra chances by turning the ball over, this one isn't going to be close. It would also be a perfect time for the opportunistic defense that helped NC State lead the country with 27 interceptions last year to show back up.
The team has forced more than two turnovers just twice this year - against Connecticut and South Alabama - forcing the Clemson offense into mistakes will give NC State a chance on Saturday. Last year, one of the major storylines in the upset of No. 7 Clemson was that NC State forced four turnovers and did not commit one.
Establish a running game
Clemson's defense is the weak link, and although their results have clearly improved over the last four games, it is definitely susceptible to the run, where they have given up an average of 169.3 yards per game.
The team gave up 19 runs of at least 20 yards in the first six games, but they have given up just two such ground gains in the last four games. However, two of the last four opponents - Virginia Tech and Maryland -- have still eclipsed 130 yards rushing against the Tigers.
NC State establishing an effective running game can do two things, which could help lead the Pack to a victory. One, it keeps Clemson's offense on the sidelines, which will be key. No team is going to completely shut down the Tigers' explosive scoring unit, but keeping them on the sideline as much as possible can help contain them.
The other thing that an effective running game will do is help take the pressure off of quarterback Mike Glennon. The signal caller is one of the ACC's best, but he is obviously more effective when there is a threat of the ground attack working. The Pack offense averages 479.6 total yards of offense when rushing for at least 100 yards, while the average dips to 336 when the team doesn't eclipse triple digits on the ground.
Matchups to watch
NC State's defensive line vs. Clemson's offensive line: NC State beat Clemson last year in large part because they put an extreme amount of pressure on the quarterback, tallying six sacks, and they limited the Tigers to 34 yards rushing on 28 carries. A similar dominating effort from the Pack's front seven, particularly the defensive line, would go a long ways towards helping State get a win.
NC State's secondary vs. Clemson's wide receivers: Most teams have one stud receiver. Clemson has two. Sophomore Sammy Watkins tallied 82 receptions for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns, in addition to 231 yards rushing last year, although he has been limited to 561 receiving and 100 rushing yards this year.
However, that has allowed junior DeAndre Hopkins to emerge in the spotlight. He has already set career-highs with 1,096 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns on his 66 receptions. NC State's secondary will clearly have their hands full with this duo, and it's going to be interesting to see how star cornerback David Amerson performs because it is doubtful that the Clemson offense will shy away from testing any defender.
Stats to watch
3: Clemson's offense ranks third in the nation converting on 53.21 percent (83-156) of its third downs, while the NC State defense is also ranked third in the FBS, allowing opponents to convert on just 25.33 percent (38-150) of their third downs.
42.9: The Clemson offense is averaging 42.9 points per game, which ranks sixth nationally. NC State must get some stops because they aren't many teams that can go toe-to-toe with a unit that is that productive.