Saturday proved to be a game of missed opportunities and costly mistakes by NCSU during a 27-19 home loss to archrival UNC. Now it's time for some Monday Morning Quarterbacking.
Key moment of the game:
NC State appeared poised to retake control of the game in the third quarter. They came out of halftime trailing 21-16, but after the two teams traded punts, the Pack put together a lengthy drive that reached the UNC 10, where NCSU had second and two. Runs by sophomore tailback Shadrach Thornton and fifth-year senior quarterback Brandon Mitchell netted a yard and a two-yard loss respectively, forcing a field goal to cut the lead to 21-19 with 4:50 to go in the third.
UNC went three-and-out on its next possession, and State's Rashard Smith, a fifth-year senior receiver, returned the Carolina punt 23 yards to the UNC 49. In a prime position to take the lead, Mitchell ran for three yards on first down, and he then threw the first of his two costly interceptions, this one to UNC's Tim Scott.
The Tar Heels did not convert the turnover into points, but that drive would ultimately represent NCSU's last good chance to take the lead.
Three things that worked:
1. Running the football
With the exception of the lack of jet sweeps to the receivers, this is probably what State envisioned for the running game in its offense. Mitchell executed the option very well, rushing 21 times for 105 yards and a score, and Thornton added 22 carries for 90 yards. As a team, NCSU finished with 212 yards on the ground.
Once again, NC State got premium efforts from its kickers. Junior Niklas Sade made all four its field goals, including a 44-yarder into the wind. Sade is now 17 of 19 kicking field goals this year, and he has made all 13 of his attempts inside 40 yards. Sade's classmate, punter WIl Baumann, averaged 42.0 yards on five punts and pinned one inside the 20.
3. Starting strong
We talked in the podcast last week about how NCSU had not scored an offensive touchdown in the first quarter since the season-opener against Louisiana Tech. With an assist from the defense and redshirt sophomore corner Juston Burris, who intercepted UNC fifth-year senior quarterback Bryn Renner on the game's second play, the Pack jumped out to a 10-0 lead for its best start since that opener.
Three things that did not work:
1. The red zone
The red zone has been a problem area on both sides of the ball all season long and that continued Saturday. NC State scored touchdowns just once in three trips, twice settling for field goals despite reaching the UNC 10 both times. It goes without saying that had the Pack converted those chances into touchdowns it would have been a different game. Conversely, UNC had three touchdowns on its four possessions in the red zone.
2. The trick plays
Besides the red zone, another difference in the game was the end-result of each team's attempt at a trick play. NCSU tried a fake punt with a direct snap to senior linebacker Robert Caldwell on fourth and eight at its own 30. UNC was not fooled and stopped Caldwell for a one-yard loss. They turned that unofficial turnover into a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead.
The Heels' attempt of trickery worked in a big way. Freshman receiver Ryan Switzer took the lateral and passed downfield to sophomore wide out Quinshad Davis, who was wide open behind the defense because freshman corner Jack Tocho had fallen for the trick. Tocho hustled and nearly ran down the slower Davis, but Davis managed to reach the end zone for a 21-16 with 9:43 to go before halftime.
3. The fourth quarter
NCSU still started the fourth quarter trailing just 21-19 and taking over at the UNC 26 after Carolina kicker Thomas Moore missed a 42-yard field goal with 14:55 to go in the game. NCSU though went three and out, gaining a net three yards. UNC then drove the field in eight plays for 67 yards and a huge touchdown. A couple of plays into its next drive, NCSU's Mitchell had the second of his two bad interceptions. UNC was then able to chew 4:33 off the clock and pin NCSU at its own 9 with 6:20 left. The Tar Heels defense held, and the offense turned around and converted a huge third and nine with 2:32 left to essentially ice the game.
Breaking down the position battles:
NC State's OL vs. North Carolina's front seven
Outside of UNC senior defensive end Kareem Martin, the Pack blocked UNC fairly well. Martin had three tackles for loss, including a sack. That was UNC's only sack of the game, however, and State averaged an impressive 4.4 yards a carry. On a whole, the offensive line won the battle.
NC State's front seven vs. North Carolina's OL
We said during the week for NCSU to have a chance, its lines needed to win battles that they were capable of winning. Unfortunately for the Pack, the front seven did not prevail Saturday. UNC's offensive line, which had given up 17 sacks and blocked for an average of just 2.8 yards per rush prior to Saturday, won the battle in the trench. Carolina averaged 4.0 yards a carry en route to a season-high 152 yards rushing, and the Pack got just one sack.
NC State's WR vs. North Carolina's DB
The passing game could have very well made the cut for three things that did not work. NCSU wide outs caught 11 passes for 140 yards, but 33 of that came on the last pass of the game. Other than freshman Jumichael Ramos, who caught a pair of passes for 45 yards, NCSU got very little downfield.
NC State's DB vs. North Carolina's WR
The Pack had a busted coverage on the Switzer-to-Davis touchdown, but otherwise covered well. Davis and freshman Bug Howard however both made some tough catches in coverage, the types that you simply tip your hat when the play was over.
The numbers bear it out: UNC's quarterbacks completed 23 of 37 passes for 216 yards and a touchdowns with one pick. NCSU's went 14 of 29 for 176 yards and two interceptions. Neither quarterback completed the big play, but UNC's were able to execute a passing attack that NC State could not replicate. One costly misthrow was when Mitchell missed a wide open junior fullback Tyler Purvis for what would have likely been a touchdown.
For the second straight week, Thornton was the best running back on the field. For the second straight week, the Pack's opponent had some better depth though. UNC used four backs, and they ran a combined 17 times for 93 yards. Overall it ended up being a push.
It's hard for any team to win the battle of tight ends against UNC, which has a future pro in junior Eric Ebron. He was not as dominant as he's capable of being, but he still did damage. He caught nine passes for 70 yards, but that's partly skewed by his fumble on a shovel-type pass that resulted in a nine-yard loss. Remove that play, and Ebron caught eight passes for 79 yards.
NC State won this battle. Smith had a nice punt return, and State's kickers were better than UNC's. Moore missed a field goal and extra point for the Heels. Of course, the Pack's fake punt was a blemish.