RALEIGH — Senior linebacker Sterling Lucas recognized the brand of defense N.C. State played against Florida State.
Key turnovers, big sacks and no big plays, that’s how the Wolfpack defense put together back-to-back winning seasons in 2010 and ’11. Until the 17-16 win over Florida State on Oct. 6, though, those hallmarks had been sporadic or missing in losses to Tennessee and Miami this season.
N.C. State, which travels to Maryland on Saturday after having the week off, had an interception set up its first touchdown against the Seminoles and a sack which knocked FSU out of field goal range in the fourth quarter.
After giving up nine plays of 20 yards or more — and seven of 40 or more — in a 44-37 loss to Miami on Sept. 29, the Pack gave up five plays longer than 20 yards, including one when it went to a "prevent" defense on the final drive.
"That’s the defense we can be," said Lucas, who had a sack and six tackles against FSU. "When we play like that, the sky’s the limit."
With a new set of linebackers, pressuring the quarterback had been one of N.C. State’s biggest problems through the first five games.
Take out a seven-sack effort against South Alabama and the Pack had five sacks in four games. Few teams had been better at getting to the quarterback than State in 2010 and ’11, ranking in the top 10 nationally both seasons.
With the loss of linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning to the NFL — Cole and Manning combined for 12 sacks and 28 tackles for loss in ’11 — the Pack had struggled to create pressure from the linebacker spots.
Against FSU, three of N.C. State’s four sacks came from the linebackers and the fourth came from defensive back Dontae Johnson, who was lined up in a linebacker spot on a key third-down sack in the fourth quarter.
N.C. State defensive coordinator Mike Archer pointed out before the FSU win, the Wolfpack’s new linebackers (Rickey Dowdy, Rodman Noel, Brandon Pittman) were getting to the quarterback, even in the Miami game, but they weren’t finishing blitzes.
The performance against the Seminoles, who averaged 50.6 points in their other three ACC games, was a culmination of everything the defense has been building, and rebuilding in the case of the linebackers, since spring practice, Archer said.
"When all 11 guys on defense play together and do what they’re supposed to do, we’re pretty good," Archer said.
"Florida State was a classic example of that, but when we don’t, we’re not very good at all."
Johnson played a big part in the FSU win. The junior cornerback spent much of the game in a safety/linebacker role while the Wolfpack played its nickel package. Johnson was everywhere with six tackles, three pass-breakups — including one in the end zone in the second quarter — and the momentum-turning sack in the fourth quarter.
Johnson, the "smartest player" on the defense, according to Archer, figures to remain a central part of the defense. The development of freshman cornerback Juston Burris gives Johnson the freedom to move around the formation.
N.C. State’s defense got a healthy dose of confidence, and maybe some momentum, from the Florida State win. There’s difference, Archer said, between knowing you can do something and actually doing it.
"We’ve got six very winnable football games left or we’ve got six games that we can lose," Archer said. "It just depends on what we do and what our focus is."