This is Clemson’s biggest game of the year. Win and the path is clear to the ACC Championship game. Lose and lose the division. The hysteria would set a Clemson record. NC State is a good team and matches up well with us. Ryan Finley is an excellent quarterback and they have good receivers. They have a strong run defense. I was surprised Clemson opened as an 18-point favorite and for ESPN to feature Ohio State – Purdue. I don’t care about GameDay, but we should have had the night game.
NC State Offense vs. Clemson Defense
What NC State does very well is pass the ball. Someone will draft Finley and potentially WR Kelvin Harmon. Finley is very efficient, completing close to 70% of his passes for 8.5 yards per attempt. He’s getting the ball out fast and not taking sacks (1.1% sack rate – ridiculously good). They are going to neutralize our pass rush with short throws; Finley isn’t going to run around trying to open up downfield throws. WR Jakobi Meyers and Emeka Emezie will keep it short, but highly efficient (85.7% and 71.4% catch rate) while Harmon is more of the downfield threat (63.5% catch rate, but 16.5 yards per completion).
Fortunately, they do not involve their running backs or tight ends in their passing game very much. However, if you see RB Trent Pinnix on the field, there is a good chance they will throw to him. He’s not a very good runner (3.1 yards per carry on 20 carries), but can catch (5 out of 7 targets) and is dynamic in the open field (14.8 yards per catch).
NC State has an experienced and very good left side of their offensive line. PFF named their LG and C Mid-Season All Americans, grading them the highest in the ACC at their position. Their RG and RT are third and fourth year players as well with good size. They rank 3rd in adjusted sack rate, but aren’t a great rushing team. These are big boys and they should have much better numbers with their schedule. RB Gallaspy is below average (3.6 yards per carry and not explosive). Backup RB Ricky Person, a true freshman, is the better player and the future. He’s averaging 5.5 yards/carry and is very explosive. Expect to see a good bit of Person in this game.
What we have in NC State is a very good passing team that is efficient and can hit big plays, but is a poor running team. Clemson ranks 116th in allowing 20 yard or more passing plays on a percentage basis. NC State ranks 15th in percentage of passing plays that go 20 or more yards. Finley is going to get his big plays. The question is how efficiently can they pass the ball and how well can we speed up Finley to prevent these big plays? NC State isn’t going to run the ball on us consistently barring magic.
Clemson Offense vs. NC State Defense
Per S&P+, Clemson is the opposite. We’re not a good passing team, but can run the ball efficiently. We rank 2nd in percentage of rushes that go 20 or more yards. NC State ranks 113th in preventing them, but 11th in rushing efficiency. If this is a draw where we run the ball decently but not great, that gives us control of the game. The draw goes to the offense. NC State is probably going to hit their big plays, but also go three and out. If we sustain drives running the ball, that’s big trouble for them and will lead to Etienne breaking big runs.
Where I disagree with S&P+ is on how well of a passing team this is. We have not moved the ball consistently passing so far this season. However, S&P+ only sees Lawrence with 56% of pass attempts. He’s completing 69% of his passes for 8.1 yards per attempt and a sack rate of 3.8%. That sack rate is good; surprising me. He’s moving the ball efficiently, while not giving up too many sacks. We know he can throw the ball downfield. I expect a big improvement in passing efficiency across the second half of the season.
On paper, Clemson and NC State have similar offenses (Clemson offense: 10th, 18th, 11th per S&P+, FPI, and Massey; NC State offense: 16th, 8th, 24th), but Clemson has a much better defense (5th, 1st, 3rd; NC State defense: 39th, 43rd, 25th). Based on the rankings and Standard Down Success rate, Clemson should move the ball just fine and take advantage of Etienne breaking big runs. NC State will be more feast or famine, while relying completely on Finley.
We’re the heavy favorite for good reasons. However, this is college football and upsets happen. Let’s get a win, no matter how ugly, and stay on track for another ACC crown and spot in the Playoff.