Last Saturday at Georgia Tech, the Pack constantly rotated their defensive line while facing the Yellow Jackets' dangerous triple option attack. One of the biggest factors in the Pack's win over the defending ACC Champions was the play of the eight big men up front, according to defensive coordinator Mike Archer. Each of the four starters were in the game for 40 snaps while the four second-team linemen tallied a total of 26 plays during the game, which had a noon kickoff.
"The temperature on the field was probably over 100 degrees and, anytime you play a team like that, it's all about mental toughness," Archer said. "Somebody has to take the dive every snap and tackle, somebody is going to get hit on every snap so we knew going in that we were going to have to rotate those guys basically every series.
"That's how we practiced it when we started working against it two weeks before. The back-ups did a great job. The key against that offense is keeping the offensive linemen off your linebackers, and they did that: they ate up blocks and gave our linebackers a chance to run."
Those eight linemen helped pave the way for middle linebacker Nate Irving's career day, which included 16 tackles. Irving having a big day was just the effect of a perfectly executed game plan, according to the defensive coordinator.
"[Nate's performance] was good and it should have been good because that's the type of offense he is going to thrive against," Archer said. "They are going to run the football, run the ball inbetween the tackles and pitch it out on the perimeter. That's where his ability takes over. We tried to funnel everything into him with the way we played our front people and, thank goodness, he played like that and gave us a chance to win."
While the defensive line doesn't have the stars that it has boasted previously under Tom O'Brien, Archer says that the group makes up for it with a collective effort and fundamentally executing the game plan.
"They're blue collar guys," he said. "They accept their role and they do a good job of staying in their gaps. We got hurt last year because some of our star players did what they wanted to do, and that can't happen. This group is very conscious of being gap-sound, they are very unselfish and they do their jobs, they let their linebackers run and that's the most important thing.
"I think they're playing as a team, they know that if they do their job, the linebackers and secondary can do their job."
Last week, the scout team was quarterbacked by junior Tobais Palmer and rookie wide receiver Bryan Underwood, in order to help simulate the run-first philosophy of Yellow Jacket quarterback Joshua Nesbitt. Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor is a true dual-threat under center, and probably the best quarterback that the Pack has seen thus far, so a similar imitation this week would not help the Pack properly prepare. Archer is not worried, though, because the first-team offense that shares the same practice field has one of the nation's best dual-threat signal callers leading the charge.
"We do enough against our own quarterback," Archer said. "[Wilson and Taylor] are very similar in the way they move around and both have the ability to make plays with their legs and their arms. That helps, ones against ones."
Archer's defense currently boasts the best opponent's third down conversion percentage in the league, and a big key to that has been limiting opponents on first down. In order to be successful, the Pack needs to continue to limit their opponents to being successful on just 25 percent of their third-down attempts.
"When you look at them so far this year, like anybody, if you can get them in predictable situations like second-and-long or third-and-long, you can dictate what you're going to do and probably what they're going to do. You have to avoid the second-and-fours and second-and-fives because that's when they can hand the ball off to [Ryan] Williams, [Darren] Evans or [David] Wilson, and Tyrod can do his thing."
The NC State defense has made great strides in almost every statistical category when compared to last year. Archer thinks that the improvements are simply a part of an ongoing maturation process that is beginning to pay dividends. One of the most obvious areas of improvement has been turnovers caused by the Pack, which Archer said the defense was just not very good at last year. This season, the team touts a +5 turnover ratio.
"I think part of it was we didn't play with a lot of confidence in the last two-thirds of the season last year," he said. "When you play young players, they don't know what they are doing and they don't play fast. The biggest thing that we are doing right now is playing faster; when you play faster, you're more aggressive; and when you're more aggressive, you cause turnovers."
Archer said that the opposing offense on Saturday will carry the traits of a typical Frank Beamer-led unit. Last season, that squad drummed the Pack by a final of 38-10 in Lane Stadium. The defense will be looking to return the favor this weekend by learning from last year's mistakes.
"They haven't changed, it's Beamer ball," Archer said. "They are going to make you stop the run and, if you can't stop the run, they aren't going to throw it. The second half of the East Carolina game is a good illustration. [Virginia Tech] is behind but they come out and make a decision - they lined up in about three formations and ran three plays. They kept running the ball and basically succeeded, with the help of a pick-six, in controlling the second half, that's what they do best.
"We've watched the film [from last year] and Taylor is very talented. He beat us more throwing the football, they beat us on two deep balls, got two pass interference penalties when we were blitzing them and he made good decisions. He's done that and he's a good quarterback. We've got to do a better job of mixing things up and not letting him get a feel for what we are doing.
"I think we are better, I think our guys are playing with more confidence and I expect us to play better [on Saturday]."
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