NC State’s reconfigured defense passes the first test, but there’s room for improvement

It was hard for N.C. State to miss star defensive end Bradley Chubb. He was on the sideline for the season-opening win over James Madison.

Chubb, the No. 5 pick in April’s NFL draft, was there as a fan but N.C. State’s reconfigured defense passed its first test without the 2017 ACC defensive player of the year.

The degree of difficulty will increase as the season progresses but as far as starts go, N.C. State coach Dave Doeren was pleased.

“I thought we did some good things,” Doeren said.

N.C. State has eight new starters on defense this season. The new group gets its second taste of game action on Saturday against Georgia State (12:30 p.m., Fox Sports South).

There were some issues in last week’s 24-13 win over JMU, namely containing the quarterback on third down, but for the most part the Wolfpack defense was fine. The Dukes only reached the end zone once (in five red-zone trips) and finished with 365 total yards.

Senior linebacker Germaine Pratt had a game-high 12 tackles and redshirt freshman linebacker Isaiah Moore added 10 tackles. Moore was one of five freshmen, true or redshirt, who played on defense against JMU.

N.C. State linebacker Isaiah Moore (41) wraps up JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci (6) after he scrambled for yards during the first half of N.C. State’s game against James Madison University at Carter-Finley Stadium Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018. Ethan Hyman

The biggest questions were up front, where the Wolfpack had to replace all four starters, most notably Chubb. Junior defensive end James Smith-Williams was active with seven tackles, including two for loss. Backup defensive end Ibrahim Kante was credited with a pair of sacks.

On the positive side, when JMU wanted to run the ball, it struggled. The Dukes had 35 designed running plays for for 91 yards or 2.6 yards per carry.

“For the first game, I thought we tackled pretty well,” Doeren said. “There was only a couple of times out in space where we didn’t.”

On the negative side, N.C. State had trouble getting to JMU quarterback Ben DiNucci — both of the sacks came on the same drive and he completed 23 of 27 passes without an interception — and containing DiNucci on third down.

“(I was) disappointed in the QB scramble part of it but encouraged in the true run defense part of it,” Doeren said.

DiNucci ran for 66 yards on third down, including a pair of 24-yard gains. Take out the two sacks and an intentional grounding penalty and DiNucci picked up 95 yards on 11 runs.

“There are a lot of poor things that we did as far as the ‘cage of the quarterback’ and getting guys to contain depth and press in the pocket,” Doeren said. “Obviously it’s something we’re going to fix.”

DiNucci also completed his first 15 passes, albeit for only 101 yards, but N.C. State struggled to pressure DiNucci and speed him up.

Notably, when the defensive front was able to get to DiNucci, he made a mistake. Near the end of the second quarter, JMU had first-and-goal from the N.C. State 10-yard line. Kante came off the left edge and sacked DiNucci on first down.

On third-and-goal from the 6, DiNucci had time to make the initial throw but couldn’t find his receiver. Kante and defensive end Deonte Holden pressured him from the outside. When DiNucci stepped up in the pocket, he fumbled the ball before he could throw it.

N.C. State recovered the fumble and scored on the ensuing drive to take a 17-7 lead into the half.

DiNucci won’t be the only running quarterback N.C. State will have to face. Dan Ellington led Georgia State with 77 rushing yards in its 24-20 win over Kennesaw State last week. Ellington also completed 20 of 28 passes for 187 yards with three touchdowns in his first start.

“(There’s) a lot of great stuff to look at and learn from in Week 2,” Doeren said. “The challenge is to improve. As a staff, as a team, as a player and be a better version of what we put on tape last week.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer