The main objective of N.C. State’s defense this season was to cut down on big plays.
So far, so good.
But that improvement will be put to the test by No. 3 Clemson (5-0) on the road on Saturday.
In last year’s loss to the Tigers, N.C. State’s defense gave up 10 plays longer than 20 yards and five longer than 30 yards. Six of Clemson’s seven touchdowns in a 56-41 win over the Wolfpack in Raleigh went for 20 yards or more.
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If N.C. State (4-1), a 17-point underdog, has any shot at an upset to end its six-game losing streak at Clemson, it will have to limit those big plays.
“I know our guys believe that we can compete, play in and play out, with anybody,” Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said. “It’s a matter of being consistent enough, throughout the course of the game, and not having a letdown.”
N.C. State’s defense controlled Notre Dame’s big-play offense in a 10-3 win Saturday. The rainy conditions and wind from Hurricane Matthew helped, but the longest play the Fighting Irish had from scrimmage was a 12-yard run by Josh Adams.
While N.C. State found a way to run the ball (157 yards) on the wet field, Notre Dame (59 yards) could not.
Even with the help from Mother Nature, that effort – plus five sacks of Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer – mentally gave the Wolfpack defense a lift.
“I think that really set our confidence at a higher level because we played some lights-out football there,” defensive tackle Kentavius Street said.
The Wolfpack will need to figure out a way to carry that confidence over against a Clemson team (5-0) that ran roughshod over the Pack last year in Raleigh.
The Tigers piled up 623 yards of offense in last year’s win. A tight game, N.C. State led 20-19 late in the second quarter and trailed 33-27 midway through the third, was blown open by the Tigers’ big-play ability.
They scored on a 24-yard run and passing plays of 57, 42, 40, 35 and 36 yards. And that was without receiver Mike Williams, who was injured last year. Williams had touchdown catches of 56 and 31 yards in Clemson’s 41-0 home win over the Wolfpack in 2014.
N.C. State, which had made strides overall from the previous year, struggled in giving up big plays in 2015. The Wolfpack allowed 38 plays of 30-plus yards, the most in the ACC. The 62 plays of 20-plus yards put the Pack ninth out of 14 ACC teams.
Last year they gave up a lot of big plays, and you don’t see that on film right now.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren on Clemson’s defense
Through five games this season, N.C. State’s defense ranks in the top 20 nationally in both plays of 20-plus (18) and 30-plus (8) yards.
Clemson – which finished the season in the top 10 nationally in both scoring and total defense – was one of the worst ACC teams in giving up big plays last season. The Tigers allowed 71 plays of 20 yards or more.
To Doeren, in his fourth season, that’s the impressive difference between this Clemson team and the others under coach Dabo Swinney, including last year’s group, which went 13-0 in the regular season.
“Last year they gave up a lot of big plays, and you don’t see that on film right now,” Doeren said.
The Tigers have given up only 17 plays of 20-plus yards this season. Considering they’ve already played Louisville, the top-ranked offense in the country, being ranked No. 10 in the country in that category is quite a jump.
Led by defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence, who is from Wake Forest, Clemson’s defense leads the ACC with 21 sacks and 14 takeaways.
“I think this is best defense we’ve seen from Clemson,” Doeren said.
Which is a scary thought, considering the Tigers ranked No. 10 in total defense last year and No. 1 in 2014.
“Not that their defense was bad last year, it wasn’t, but they’re really doing some good stuff defensively right now,” Doeren said.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio