Big plays were a killer for NC State on its trip to Miami on Saturday. The Wolfpack fell behind 23-7 in the first quarter, but clawed their way back to a fourth quarter tie before miscues gave the Hurricanes the victory.
Here are the keys to the game revisited:
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What we wrote: The NC State defense has proven to be one of the most opportunistic in the nation - last year, they led the country with 27 interceptions and they are currently tied for 11th nationally with six in four games. The secondary should have plenty of chances on Saturday, and this is one major area where the Pack can take advantage of the Hurricane's youth.
Miami has fumbled the ball seven times so far this year, and lost it five times, while junior quarterback Stephen Morris has thrown 14 interceptions in his 15 career appearances, including three this season. This Canes' squad is young - they've played 17 rookies so far, including 14 true freshmen - and the Pack defense, especially the experienced secondary, needs to force them into making mistakes.
It goes back to last year's key stat - when NC State forced three or more turnovers, they were undefeated. In the past two seasons, the Pack is 10-0 when forcing at least, and 18-5 since coach Tom O'Brien took the job before the 2007 season.
All-American cornerback David Amerson has tallied a pick in each of the last three games, and continuing that streak would go a long ways toward helping the Pack get a win at Miami.
What happened: Not only was NC State reckless with the ball, giving up six turnovers, but they only forced one. That's a recipe for disaster and the Wolfpack was actually lucky that they were in this game until the end.
Limit Miami's ground attack
What we wrote: Miami's offense is a balanced one, and Morris passed for 436 yards against Georgia Tech last week, but it all starts with their running game. As defensive coordinator Mike Archer said this week, this is the best pair of tailbacks the Pack has faced this year, and it's not even close.
Senior Mike James and rookie sensation Duke Johnson are very different, but compliment each other perfectly. They have combined for 567 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns this year and average a collective 6.52 yards per tote. Those are impressive numbers, and the NC State defense can make Morris try to beat them with his arm if they shut down the run game.
NC State is going to have to tackle well, and not let the lightning quick Johnson get loose. He can make an impact running, receiving or returning (more on that later), while James is a hard-running bruiser.
What happened: One of the best parts about the game from a Pack perspective was their run defense against a pair of dangerous running backs. State limited the explosive Miami ground attack to 85 yards on 32 rushes, an average of less than three yards per tote. Miami's Duke Johnson and Mike James entered the game averaging better than 5.3 yards per carry.
Offensive line wins the battle up front
What we wrote: The Miami defense is not all that terrifying, but the Pack offense is going to have to score, and probably score quite a bit, to win this one. In order to do that, the revamped offensive line is going to have to play well, despite the loss of starting tackles Rob Crisp, who hasn't played since the season opener, and Andrew Wallace, who was hurt last week.
The front is going to have to provide adequate protection for fifth-year quarterback Mike Glennon, who should be able to take advantage of the Miami secondary that allowed Boston College to throw for 441 yards provided he gets time, and open holes for Tony Creecy and Shadrach Thornton (and Mustafa Greene, who has been suspended for the past two games, if he returns).
What happened: It was an admirable effort from the offensive front of NC State. Not only were they down their regular offensive tackles, forcing the fivesome to be shuffled, but they also lost longtime starting guard Zach Allen during the contest.
The Pack's offensive line was a fluid group of players, but whoever was up there played well. Miami got to the quarterback just twice, while the Red and White rushed for 224 yards on the day. The two sacks were the Hurricanes' only tackles for loss on the day.
Don't let Miami's special teams win the game
What we wrote: NC State is going to need a complete team performance in all three facets of the game, in order to win this one on the road. Miami's special teams, if they are healthy, are very good.
There has been some question whether punter Dalton Botts will be available to play, but he did not appear on the injury report. Botts is one of the best in the ACC, and the senior is averaging 41.4 yards per punt, which is a tick below 2011's average of 42.7. Meanwhile, kicker Jake Wieclaw is not only one of the ACC's best, but he was named a Lou Groza Award semifinalist last year.
The Canes' returners are also dangerous. Johnson is the team's outstanding kick returner, and he averages over 30 yards per return. He has taken one back 95 yards to the house already this year. Meanwhile, Miami's leading wide receiver, Phillip Dorsett, returns punts and is a threat. Needless to say, NC State's coverage unit must contain the Canes' playmakers that will be put back deep.
Something to watch, however, will be the Miami long-snapper. Starter Sean McNally was listed on the injury report as out for the season. That could provide the opening for State to take advantage on special teams, and win that all-important battle.
What happened: The NC State special teams probably won this battle, although the game didn't end in their favor. Miami missed all three field goals that they attempted, and the Pack had a better average per punt - 40.8 vs. Miami's 37.6. State's Tobais Palmer also had a long kickoff return, while the Canes were limited to just 43 yards on two kick returns and a six-yard punt return.
Niklas Sade also nailed an important 50 yard field goal.
Matchups to watch
NC State's linebackers vs. Miami's running back duo What we wrote: The Miami offensive line is huge, and they have done very well so far this year, allowing just six quarterback sacks on Morris and paving the way for both James and Johnson to each average better than 5.3 yards per carry. Therefore, the linebackers are going to have to come up big in limiting the Canes' backs. They need to continue making plays in the backfield, and must also be weary of Johnson making plays through the air.
What happened: As mentioned above, the Miami running backs were limited on the ground and they didn't do much damage in the passing game, either. The Miami passing attack went off for 566 yards, but that's mostly on the secondary.
NC State's offensive tackles vs. Miami's defensive ends What we wrote: Perhaps the strongest part of Miami's defense are their two defensive ends. Sophomore Anthony Chickillo, a very highly touted recruit two years ago, had his coming out party against Georgia Tech with seven tackles, including three for loss, and a sack. Meanwhile, his counterpart Shayon Green has paced the Canes this year with 17 unassisted tackles and 28 total stops.
It's unknown who the Pack will start at offensive tackle - Tyson Chandler, who has started the past three games at left tackle, is a definite on one side, and the other spot could be manned by R.J. Mattes, a fifth-year senior who has played at left guard this year but has two years of experience as a starting tackle, or redshirt sophomore Andy Jomantas, who played last week in Wallace's absence.
No matter how it shakes out, the new line is going to have to communicate well and limit the impact of Chickillo and Green. It's going to be tough for Mike Glennon and company to keep pace with Miami if he doesn't have time to throw and the backs don't have holes to run through.
What happened: NC State did bump Mattes out to tackle, and the offensive front did a stellar job, considering they were down three opening night starters for a large portion of the night.
Stats to watch
3 What we wrote: As we said earlier, the Pack is 10-0 over the last two years when forcing three or more turnovers. The defense must force turnovers to be successful, and the team is 27-8 since O'Brien took the helm when they force at least two turnovers. How many mistakes the defense is able to force the Miami offense into is going to be a major key.
What happened: NC State forced just one turnover, and the opportunistic secondary was exposed for 566 yards passing by Miami.
141.75 What we wrote: Johnson and James - Miami's running back duo - combine to average 141.75 rushing yards per game, and Johnson adds even more in the receiving and return game. Therefore, it is imperative that the Pack limits the duo to below their season average. Forcing turnovers allows a defense to give up more yards, but it's going to be tough to win if the two-headed backfield of the Hurricanes hits above 150 yards on the ground.
What happened: As mentioned earlier, the Miami backs were limited to 85 yards on the ground, and didn't make a huge impact through the air, either, but it didn't matter - the Canes' passing attack was all that they needed on Saturday.