As far as love stories go, this is an unconventional one.
But N.C. State’s dramatic improvement on defense, since a loss at East Carolina six weeks ago, can be attributed to love and trust.
The Wolfpack (4-2, 1-1 ACC) has no shame in sharing such emotions as another gargantuan task awaits its defense on Saturday at No. 7 Louisville (5-1, 3-1).
The strong play by the defense in last week’s 24-17 overtime loss at Clemson, and really since a 33-30 loss at ECU on Sept. 10, gets into some sensitive, touchy-feely emotions that normally aren’t associated with football teams.
“Everybody is out there for each other, loving each other and just happy to be out there with each other,” said N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb, who leads the team with five sacks.
There has been no change in the basic scheme of the defense or significant personnel adjustments since the Wolfpack gave up 33 points in Greenville and, in general, couldn’t get the Pirates’ offense off the field when they needed to.
The only major difference, senior cornerback Jack Tocho said, is the defense’s unity.
“It’s just about the players being invested more in the fundamentals, the game plan and holding each other accountable,” Tocho said. “There were a lot of mental errors in that (ECU) game.”
That unity is paying off. N.C. State ranks in the top 20 in both total defense (No. 15, 315.7 yards per game) and scoring defense (No. 18, 18.7 points per game)
N.C. State’s defense tried to make too many individual plays against ECU. Everyone tried to be a hero instead of trying to do their own job.
“Being a good defense is about accountability first and understanding how much your role affects everybody else on the field,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “You have to do your job and not try to make someone else’s plays.”
Being a good defense is about accountability first and understanding how much your role affects everybody else on the field.
N.C. State defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable measures “explosive” plays as runs of 10 yards or more and passing plays of 20 yards or more.
ECU had eight explosive plays – five rushing and three passing – and three of those plays went for touchdowns. Old Dominion had seven explosive plays and three for touchdowns in a 49-22 N.C. State home win on Sept. 17.
Wake Forest had eight explosive plays in a 33-16 N.C. State win in Raleigh on Oct. 1 but didn’t score on any of them. Notre Dame had one explosive play, a 12-yard run, in a 10-7 N.C. State win in Raleigh on Oct. 8.
That progress was dismissed as being against Wake Forest, ranked No. 117 in the country total offense, and Notre Dame, a game played during a hurricane.
But the Tigers, with star quarterback Deshaun Watson and their potent offense, were considered more of a measuring stick. In last year’s 56-41 win in Raleigh, Clemson had 16 explosive plays and six went for touchdowns.
Last week, the Tigers had four explosive plays on offense (and one on special teams) and didn’t score on any of them.
It’s almost like two different teams played against ECU, which hasn’t won a game since, and Clemson, which is 7-0 and ranked No. 4 in the country.
Huxtable said the players know that they underachieved in the ECU loss.
“I think they’ve just have made a decision that that’s not who we are and we’re better than that,” Huxtable said.
“We’ve just been doing things better and with more discipline and I credit the guys for that. They’ve taken a lot of pride in not making those same mistakes.”
Louisville, with top scoring offense (52.3 points per game) in the country, will test N.C. State’s progress and new-found confidence on defense.
That’s fine with Tocho, who has adopted an “All you need is love” mantra from the Beatles.
“The whole defense has been together for so long, you appreciate the love,” Tocho said. “They are my brothers and that’s cool.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Avoiding the big mistake
N.C. State’s defense struggled with giving up big plays last year and earlier this season. Defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable measures explosive plays as runs of 10 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more. How N.C. State’s defense has fared with those plays in the past five games:
at East Carolina