A photo caption in Thursday's Sports section did not indicate when defensive coordinator Mike Archer was criticized for the team's problems on defense. The defense struggled in 2009. The photo was taken last season, when the team had a highly rated defense.
****** There is something missing from N.C. State's defense this season. It's not just star linebacker Nate Irving - now playing with the NFL's Denver Broncos - or the expected Wolfpack starters on the injured list.
It's also not a physical problem, or a lack of talent, but rather a needed attitude adjustment, senior linebacker Audie Cole said.
"We're not the most confident defense right now," said Cole, the Wolfpack's leading tackler. "Once we get our confidence back, we'll be ready to play."
Even more than the return of a healthy J.R. Sweezy at defensive tackle, Wolfpack defensive coordinator Mike Archer wants to see his players show up against a high-powered Cincinnati offense tonight (8 p.m., ESPN, WRAL-101.5) with an improved confidence.
"You have to play with a confidence on defense," Archer said.
The collective ego of State's defense, one of the best units in the ACC a year ago, has taken a hit through the first three games:
Liberty rolled up 406 total yards against the Wolfpack in the opener.
Wake Forest added 424 more (and 34 points in an N.C. State loss).
N.C. State held South Alabama to less than 300 yards, and to only one touchdown, but it allowed Kendall Houston to rush for 117 yards, which caused coach Tom O'Brien to conclude: "We had a lot of guys that weren't going the right way."
Archer has not had the lineup he thought he would have going into the season. Sweezy, the team's co-captain and returning leader in sacks (six), fractured a bone in his left foot in training camp and is expected to miss two more games.
Sweezy's backup, Thomas Teal, suffered the same injury in the opener and is expected to miss four more weeks.
Weakside linebacker Terrell Manning injured his knee in the first quarter against South Alabama and is expected to miss three games.
Defensive end Jeff Rieskamp missed the past two games with a shoulder injury but is expected to play tonight against the Bearcats (2-1).
There were also knee injuries to cornerback Jarvis Byrd, a projected starter, and linebacker Sterling Lucas, a top reserve, before the season started, sapping the Wolfpack's depth.
"That's part of football," Archer said. "Somebody else has to step in and play."
Total yardage has never been the most important stat to either Archer or O'Brien, who have been together for five seasons. Turnovers have always been their emphasis.
A year ago, State's defense fueled a turn-around from 5-7 to 9-4 as one of the best units in the country in creating turnovers (29, tied for 18th in the country) and getting to the quarterback (41 sacks, fourth nationally).
Those two key elements, albeit against lower-level Division I opponents, have still been there this season with 13 sacks and 11 takeaways. And the most important stat, points allowed, is up by just about a point (22.6 compared to 21.3) from last year's average.
But the Wolfpack has allowed too many big plays, Archer said, and too many third-down conversions.
N.C. State's defense gave up a total of three touchdowns of 20 yards or more against Liberty and Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons, the only Bowl Subdivision opponent N.C. State has faced, converted 8 of 16 of their third-down opportunities. South Alabama was 8-of-15 on third down.
"The biggest thing that has hurt us is getting off the field on third down," Archer said.
Like Wake Forest, Cincinnati runs a version of the spread offense. The Bearcats, in their second season under coach Butch Jones, have put up huge numbers in their first three games. The Bearcats average 51.3 points per game and have run for 239 yards per game. Isaiah Pead, who missed Cincinnati's 30-19 loss at N.C. State last year, ran for 155 in a 45-32 loss to Tennessee two weeks ago.
Two years ago, N.C. State's defense dropped to the bottom of the ACC as an injury-ravaged season turned into a nightmare. Duke, Boston College and Florida State all put up video-game numbers in lopsided defeats of the Wolfpack.
That 2009 group, which includes many of the same starters on this year's team, was inexperienced, Cole said. That's not an issue with those players now, however.
"We know what we're doing," Cole said. "Everyone's going to make mistakes, but we can't make as many as we have been."
Archer said there are two parts to playing defense: pressure and coverage. In the first half of the Wake game in particular, when the Deacs scored 20 points and generated 278 yards, State executed neither.
"When you combine those two things, it's not good," Archer said.
Missed assignments and blown coverages cost N.C. State against Wake. There were improvements on both fronts against South Alabama, but not enough of them from Cole's perspective.
"The defense really has to step it up," Cole said. "Coming into the year, I thought we would control things. For some reason in games, we're not putting it together right now."
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