As we countdown to kickoff in September, we’re going to be doing a team-by-team opponent preview each week over the spring/summer. This week, we’re previewing Syracuse’s matchup with NC State on Oct. 15 with their major storylines.
North Carolina State University football had an incredible year in 2021. Unranked in the preseason by every major outlet and projected to win no more than six games on average, the Wolfpack shocked the football world by cruising to a 9-3 record and a 20th overall ranking in the AP top 25.
Unfortunately, while they were scheduled to play UCLA in the SDCCU Holiday Bowl, it was canceled due to Covid concerns. There was an outbreak amongst the UCLA players and another opponent wasn’t able to be scheduled. On to 2022.
DEVIN LEARY STOCK ON THE RISE
Quarterback Devin Leary took a huge step up in 2021, passing for 3,433 yards and throwing 35 touchdowns to only five interceptions. He did it as a prototypical pocket passer as well, evidenced by his 54 rushes for -73 yards.
NC State didn’t have much of a ground game to speak of, so Leary was leaned on to be the offense and he delivered, routinely making big plays to his trio of talented wide receivers. The passing offense was ranked 19th in the country at 288.4 ypg under Leary, while the rushing offense chugged along at 99th with just 126.0 ypg.
A big part of that success was due to Ikem Ekwonu, the massive left tackle who gave Leary all day to throw and bulldozed his way to being the number six overall pick in last April’s NFL draft. His loss will surely be felt, but in all honesty the rest of the offensive line played well only giving up 25 sacks on the year, which is a great number considering how often the Pack threw the ball.
Another hurdle will be the departure of Leary’s top wide receiver Emeka Emezie. The senior caught 60 passes for 802 yards and six touchdowns but it wasn’t his numbers as much as his playstyle that helped Leary, routinely catching contested balls in big moments, such as his two touchdowns in the final two minutes to comeback and win the UNC game. A receiver with trusted hands like that is hard to replace, but Emezie is onto the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, and Leary still has the rest of his pass catchers all returning.
GROUND GAME COULD BE THE ACHILLES HEEL
One area that could hold this team back from repeating last year’s success is the ground game. While it wasn’t great last year, it figures to regress even more as not only Ekwonu is gone, but last year’s top two running backs as well- Zonovan Knight to the Jets as a UDFA and Ricky Person, Jr. reuniting with his teammate Emezie in Baltimore.
Neither of those players showed much last year, but as it stands right now the roster is even more sparse behind them. Jordan Houston figures to start right now given his seniority in the room as the player with most time on the field thanks to his role on special teams, but the team likes Trent Pennix as well.
Pennix has a unique skillset as a receiver out of the backfield and scored three receiving touchdowns last year. I’d expect a timeshare between both backs with Pennix getting heavier usage on third downs. Either way, the ground game will need to find it’s footing to help out their quarterback and prevent the offense from being one dimensional for the second year in a row.
DEFENSE RETURNING NEARLY ALL STARTERS
NC State’s defense was underrated last year, and a big part of it’s success on their way to nine wins. The team was ranked 21st in the nation at 331.6 yards given up per game, which is actually a decent number in this day and age of college football.
» Related: Previewing SU’s game against Wagner
Losing top pass rusher Daniel Joseph to graduation hurts, but at just five sacks on the year, it shouldn’t be too hard to replace his production. All-ACC players defensive tackle Cory Durden and linebacker Drake Thomas return to make more splash plays in the Pack’s blitz-happy defense, and the secondary returns every starter as well.
Considering that essentially this exact same roster on defense held their opponents to 21 points or less in seven out of 12 games in 2021, they look to be in good shape heading into another year of a successful system.
NC State was the dark horse going into last season, but after arriving on the scene with a high-scoring offense and efficient defense, the mark will be on their back in the newly competitive ACC. The anemic run game could limit their potential in certain games, but with a quarterback looking to catapult his NFL draft stock by putting the team on his back again, I expect NC State to win at least 8 games and potentially even take the ACC title.
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