N.C. State's linebackers growing with each snap

CorrespondentSeptember 14, 2012 

— As it tried to put the finishing touches on a 10-7 victory over Connecticut, N.C. State’s defense confronted one final last-gasp effort from the Huskies.

With a little more than 2 minutes remaining and UConn facing a fourth-and-9 from its 40, sophomore linebacker Brandon Pittman charged Huskies quarterback Chan Whitmer and appeared to come up with his first career sack.

Defensive end Art Norman was offsides, negating the play. N.C. State sealed its victory on the next snap when David Amerson broke up Whitmer’s pass.

While the penalty altered the way UConn’s final drive finished, it doesn’t change the fact Pittman executed when the game was on the line.

“That was a heck of a play because he read the protection and he knew where the seam was and he took it inside and got to the quarterback,” N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer said. “Unfortunately, he lost it because we were offsides, but that was good to see that. That’s something that you have to actually see and feel. You can talk about it, but until it happens ...”

N.C. State’s young linebacking corps will have their third chance to experience game situations when the Wolfpack (1-1) hosts South Alabama (1-1) at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday at 6 p.m.

With the exception of senior Sterling Lucas, the season-opening 35-21 loss to Tennessee was the first time most of N.C. State’s linebackers saw significant action.

It showed as the Volunteers rushed for 191 yards and racked up 524 yards of total offense. While there were several reasons for such gaudy numbers – Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, for one – N.C. State’s linebackers did little to impede Tennessee’s progress. The Wolfpack had to line up in nickel formations to slow down the Volunteers’ aerial potency.

If the overall effort did little to dispel the perception that linebackers were the defense’s most obvious question mark, the performance against the Huskies provided reasons for optimism.

Employing its base 4-3 defense, the Wolfpack held the Huskies to 239 total yards, including 35 rushing. While the stingy total can be attributed in part to a solid effort by the defensive line and some inclement weather conditions, N.C. State’s linebackers also provided some highlights.

Making his second career start, junior weakside linebacker Rickey Dowdy made a timely sack on fourth down late in the second quarter to stop a Huskies drive at the Wolfpack 29-yard line.

Sophomore strongside linebacker Rodman Noel had six tackles, including one for a loss.

And then there was Pittman’s play.

“We’re still searching for some right combinations there, and hopefully we’re getting closer and better to where we have to get to,” N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said Monday.

One of N.C. State’s two captains, Lucas has provided a soothing influence as the unit looks to find effective combinations to replace the likes of Audie Cole (NFL), Terrell Manning (NFL) and D.J. Green (suspension).

Against UConn, Lucas thought many of his younger teammates shed some of the anxiety that characterized the effort against the Volunteers. That allowed them to concentrate on the reads their coaches had stressed.

“It’s all about vision, training your eyes, seeing the formation and seeing what you can do to attack certain formations,” Lucas said. “… When you (see the formation), you can expect the play before it happens. I think we did a better job of that last game.”

If that continues against South Alabama and beyond, Dowdy said he hopes the group can quickly move past the characterization of being green.

“We don’t really buy into us being inexperienced,” said Dowdy, who nonetheless admitted that first-game jitters affected his play against the Vols.

“We know what we’re capable of. Coach has put is in the right position to make plays, and that’s what we’re going to go out there and do. We have standards for ourselves, so we do the best we can to reach those standards.”

The past two seasons suggest the Wolfpack has exacting standards.

Much of N.C. State’s recent success has been predicated on linebackers pressuring the quarterback.

Irving was a dominant force in 2010, leading the team with 21.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. He and the other starting linebackers – Cole and Manning – combined to account for 39.2 percent of the Wolfpack’s 42 season sacks.

Cole and Manning teamed up for 28 tackles for loss and 11 sacks in 2011, and N.C. State finished in the top 10 nationally in sacks for the second consecutive season.

“I think the most important thing for these guys is to go out and play every week and improve,” Archer said. “In our opinion, they improved from the first week to the second week. Now, we have to improve this week. If we do that, then by the end of the year, they should be good.

“Now, are they going to be guys that play in the NFL? I don’t know that. But that’s the expectation and that’s the standard that has been created here by some of the former guys. That’s something that you’ve got to be proud of, but at the same time, those guys know what’s at stake. They know how important linebackers are in this defense – we like to blitz them; they’re involved in every facet of the game.

“They’re very, very important in what we do.”

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