Wolfpack's running game is a work in progress

jgiglio@newsobserver.comSeptember 27, 2013 

— N.C. State wants to be an offense that can run the football and control tempo. As coach Dave Doeren put it before the season, a combination of Wisconsin’s power running game and Oregon’s speed spread.

Through the first three games, the Wolfpack has averaged nearly 200 yards per game on the ground and almost 80 plays per game. And that, to offensive coordinator Matt Canada, qualifies as a start.

“We’re doing OK,” Canada said. “We’re getting better, but we have a long way to go to where we want to be.”

The Wolfpack (2-1) will see how much progress it can make against Central Michigan (1-3) Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN3) at Carter-Finley Stadium.

In a new offensive scheme, and on its second quarterback, the Wolfpack has been able to accomplish some of its preseason goals. The Wolfpack has averaged 196.7 rushing yards per game, with 4.4 yards per carry, and 78.6 plays per game.

By comparison, Wisconsin averages 349.7 rushing yards (third in the country) and Oregon has averaged 72 plays.

Doeren and Canada want the offense, still finding its way under backup quarterback Pete Thomas, to keep improving.

“It’s a work in progress,” Doeren said. “We are running the ball efficiently, we’re averaging over 4 yards per run, but we need more explosive runs.”

Doeren said specifically the running backs need to start making bigger plays. In three games, the Wolfpack has had 16 runs of 10 yards or more, only seven have been by a running back.

Sophomore Shadrach Thornton had a 21-yard run against Clemson, his only carry of the game, and the only run longer than 10 yards by a running back.

Doeren said Thornton, who was suspended for the first game of the season for an offseason arrest, is still working his way back into the gameplan.

“Shad’s got to earn it,” Doeren said. “He’s done a good job of that, but I’m not handing things over to people that made mistakes in the offseason. They got to prove that they deserve the ball.”

Doeren and Canada are satisfied with how the Wolfpack has controlled tempo. The Wolfpack wants to go fast, when it helps them, but not just for the sake of going fast.

Through three games, N.C. State has averaged 78.6 plays and has still held a time of possession edge of 34 minutes to 26.

“We’ve been able to slow it down with motion and shifting and speed it up with some of our fastball stuff,” Doeren said.

The “fastball” includes the jet sweep runs by receivers Bryan Underwood and Rashard Smith. Underwood had runs of 18 and 36 yards against Clemson, his first two carries of the season. Underwood also caught four passes for 35 yards against the Tigers, which doubled his production from the first two games of the season.

Doeren said Underwood, a junior who ranked second in the ACC last season with 10 touchdown catches, needs to be more involved.

“We need to get him more touches,” Doeren said. “He has shown he’s an explosive player.”

While the offense waits for quarterback Brandon Mitchell to return from a broken bone in his left foot, Thomas has shown improvement, Doeren said.

Thomas is expected to start at least the next two games, with a possibility of Mitchell returning to face Syracuse on Oct. 12.

Thomas has also shown a moxie and willingness to make tough plays. Thomas led a 23-play, 84-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter of the Clemson loss last Thursday, which included four fourth-down conversions and a 4-yard TD run by Thomas.

“You have to appreciate how hard Pete plays,” Doeren said. “He’s giving us everything he has. As he plays, he’s going to get better and better.”

The Wolfpack coach believes the rest of the offense will do the same.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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