NC State had the chance to upset a top 10 team at home, in position to score the tying touchdown near the end of the third quarter. They failed to convert and missed the ensuing field goal before the Irish boat raced them in the final period.
Did QB Brennan Armstrong play his best game? No, three interceptions makes that clear. Many of his passes were not accurate enough to cleanly move an offense down the field. Conversely, his receivers could have done more to make passes, even in tough defensive coverage.
Let's go through some examples of the passing game, piggybacking off of Alec's post game analysis.
Not everything is Brennan Armstrong's fault
To give Armstrong the benefit of the doubt, he did throw some passes right to the hands of his receivers and they weren't able haul them in. Here, Porter Rooks couldn't convert a needed third down. He ran a good route, got open on the inside lane, Armstrong had good protection and hit Rooks on time in stride, but he just dropped it.
I've been looking forward to seeing Rooks step up this year after playing behind fan favorite and IG heart throb Thayer Thomas. He had two disappointing drops in this game, I hope this won't lead to his demotion down the depth chart as it seems there's younger players ready to fill in.
The Notre Dame defender may have also gotten a hand in there to poke it out, so maybe it's not all on Rooks. I was really impressed with the Irish secondary, they had so much speed to keep up with the Wolfpack receivers.
Rooks, part deux
This one is harder to blame on the coverage knocking the ball out. Rooks just muffed it.
It's gotta be hard when the margins are so thin. Rooks hasn't gotten many in game looks over the last couple seasons. Now he's getting prime playing time and part of the game is being ready to step up when your number is called. Sometimes you only get a few key chances. I hope he doesn't lose his spot because I think he still has potential, but another game like this and that may be curtains for him in the rotation.
Not quite a drop
One of those aforementioned young guys is Juice Vereen, who has been making a fast name for himself in his freshman season. Coach Dave Doeren is showing that if you produce, you'll get playing time regardless of tenure.
On this play, I would say it was more of an overthrow by Brennan Armstrong, putting it too high for Vereen. And actually, if he'd lofted it to the end zone he'd have had Kevin Concepcion for a touchdown, so it's hard to tell whether Vereen touched it unnecessarily.
It would have been really tough catch, but Vereen has the skills to get that. From this angle, it seems like it was likely intended for him and not KC.
TOUGH, tough throws
Speaking of Concepcion, I don't know whether this counts as a drop or not. Armstrong high pointed it, but it was stiflingly good coverage by Notre Dame. Looks like the defender got a hand in there to knock the ball out. Had that not happened, KC did have the space to get his foot down if he'd maintained possession, though the level of difficulty on it would be very very high.
Also, Armstrong may have left it short. A little deeper into the end zone and it might have made for an easier catch attempt.
Back breaking drop
Kevin Concepcion has a bright future for the Wolfpack. But this was a heartbreaking shift. The Wolfpack had already squandered amazing field possession after a strip sack on Sam Hartman, coming away with no points at the end of the third quarter. Then the defense gets a stop and NC State gets the ball back to start the fourth quarter. The drive had them going in the wrong direction until this third and a mile play had Armstrong hit KC right on the hands. The ball careens right into the waiting mitts of the Notre Dame defender.
You can see the pass was in a key gap in the coverage where would be just a safety to beat. KC could have caught it, hit up-left and boost with nothing but daylight ahead. It could have been a foot race to the end zone, instead Notre Dame turns around and scores.
This mistake was basically a 14 point swing in the game, and the moment everything fell apart for NC State. They played well enough to hang with the #10 team in the country for three quarters. Unfortunately for them, the game lasts four quarters. And also if it were three quarters long they'd have lost, much like I've lost this analogy.
Upon further review, I think this pass was a bit behind Concepcion. It still should have been caught, mind you, as the window was super tight with the defender closing in. But the drop may have been due to having to slow down and turn for the ball.
Or maybe it's about the Uno reverse card spin that left handed QB's put on the ball. Who knows. People keep talking about this and I don't know if it's real or not. Maybe we should interview a receiver.
Not just drops, but missed passes too
The issues in the passing game were definitely not all about dropped passes. Brennan Armstrong missed his targets and thus big opportunities. Late in the second half, Armstrong missed Concepcion for a TD by juuuuust over throwing him. KC also was kinda sorta bumped by the nickel and they didn't call it, but he also still could have caught it if the ball was placed better.
Again, it's fractions here and there. Placing the ball on time there is hard, same with high pointing or back shoulders, etc., but these are the margins between success and...not success.
Miss part 2
At first glance, this looks like a good pass breakup by the Notre Dame defender...
But from the reverse angle you see that Concepcion was open for a loooong time before Brennan saw him. Throw that ball two seconds earlier and a second &17 turns into third and short. These types of plays keep momentum going in drives.
There were good passes too...
It wouldn't be fair to paint the whole day as a waste. Armstrong did have some dang good passes, and the receivers did make some dang good catches. Here, BA finds Bradley Rozner for a solid third and long conversion. These lengthier types of throws are what we were hoping from Anae and Armstrong. This throw goes over 20 yards in the air, which is something that felt few and far between in the Tim Beck offense.
Again, a nice pitch and catch to Vereen. The offensive line gave Armstrong enough time to survey the field, and he delivered a ball on time for a first down.
If it feels like Kevin Concepcion's name is being mentioned a lot, it's because he jumps off the tape as the most impact receiver in this game. He's becoming a favorite target of Armstrong, as he seems to have a way of being in the right place at the right time. It's not just the passes greater than 10-15 yards that NC State needs to complete, it's these quick slants to make a second and long turn into third and manageable. Here, he completes the pass for nine yards and Delbert Mimms was subsequently able to come in and convert the short yardage play for a first down.
Armstrong threw the ball on time and on target, and KC ensured he secured the ball before turning up field, then worked to fight for a few more yards after catch. We want more YAC, please.
Stop quitting on the play
One of the things that jumps out through two games of the Brennan Armstrong experience is his running. Yes, he's a good running quarterback, but that's not always what the team needs. Here, the pocket collapses and he immediately tucks it and runs. This is a recurring theme with him, and one that I hope he works on.
He actually had Rozner open on the left side of the field, and the slot receiver was open for a brief moment. But he hesitated that extra second while the nose tackle found a wide hole open and came in to flush Armstrong out.
Here is where Armstrong needs to improve. In these situations, instead of keeping his eyes down field and finding another option for a completion, he assumes the play is busted and just puts his head and shoulders down to try and bust through as far as he can. And against the strong Notre Dame defense, this wasn't going to get him very far. It was one thing to do this against UConn, it's another against the Irish.
Again, as SOON as the receivers are initially covered, it's running time. He's not able to out run the LB, and scrambles to get a few yards out of it. The NC State coaches also didn't do him any favors by getting him into some designed bootleg situations in order to roll out of the pocket to make a throw.
Broken record here, same thing again. He's able to get a few more yards here just because the Notre Dame defense was dropped back so far as it was third and 16.
The Fighting Irish only rushed three!! The pocket had not collapsed, it looks like he just panicked. It wasn't late in the game or anything, he had time to stand there and wait. This was third and a mile, he needed to wait longer for the play to develop, or scramble out and allow the receivers to scramble to get open. Not sure how he thought he was going to gain 16+ yards here.
This play shows how Notre Dame used the same LB at multiple parts of the game to create the sense of pressure against the NC State QB. In the second play, Brennan needed to step up and shift right. Rolling out to his left was the opposite of what he should do, since that side was overloaded. You can identify this at the line, a guy with his experience should be able to see that.
The slot receiver ended up being open on a curl, but by the time he turned around his QB was already gone and heaving the ball out of bounds.
Now, this one might be the worst play of the game. It's the ultimate example of what I'm talking about. It's third and looooong, you have to throw here, you can't run. Notre Dame rushes only three, and Armstrong again thinks the pocket has collapsed when it hasn't. I'm not sure if all the pressure had him rattled or not?
He had the time to wait. And even when he started scrambling, he KEPT scrambling, then doubled back and KEPT scrambling more. He tucks the ball with clearly zero intention to pick it back up and look to throw.
Once he made up his mind to run, he wasn't looking at anything else, and the offense around him is scrambling to improvise blocks for him. This is just disorganized.
At this point in the game, NC State needed a touchdown to tie the game. Getting the stop here was huge for the Notre Dame defense, as State missed the ensuing field goal try before Notre Dame exploded in the fourth quarter. You'd like your veteran QB to have an understanding of the moment a bit better than this.
Comparison to Sam Hartman
To give a point of comparison, Sam Hartman did what I'm describing. He was flushed out of the pocket and rolled laterally in order buy time for his receiver to get open. He did just that as he connected for a 16ish yard pass that went nearly to the house.
If Armstrong is so good with his legs, he needs to use them smartly in favor of the rest of the offense, not just taking off. This is something you teach running QBs early in their career, so I worry it may be late to be teaching him now.
Best play of the game
To show that Armstrong is capable of doing this, here is arguably his best play of the day. The pocket collapses, he finds the gap and rolls to his left, obviously his dominant side. He stays behind the line of scrimmage, keeping his eyes down field long enough to find Rozner for the TD. The team needed this in order to keep within one possession late in the first half.
(Notre Dame ended up scoring right before the half anyway, but whatever)
From this side, you can see again how Notre Dame was using their Sam linebacker to act as a spy. The Wolfpack are a bit lucky that he floated to the middle to cover that area, which opened up a lane to Armstrong's left. You can see how Rozner was not open until Armstrong kept the play alive long enough until he got just enough separation to make the play.
That feeling when you remember people suggested you bring a poncho and you said, "no, ponchos and jackets are for losers! I'm gonna wear my t-shirt like a man!!"
This is the feeling I'm hoping to avoid moving forward.
Ultimately, I think NC State can correct these mistakes. It will likely mean a few key changes:
A receiver rotation of Concepcion, Vereen and Rozner, and I'm fine with that. Would like to see Terrell Timmons, Julian Gray and Trent Pennix more. Pennix has been an enigma for years, why doesn't he get more action?
Brennan Armstrong to have more patience and confidence in his offensive line, and to use his legs efficiently to create passing opportunities instead of deferring to the run only.
It's reductive to say, "just throw better"... but kinda like, yeah, do that. It's obviously easy for someone on the internet to say that, I'm not the one having an NFL caliber defense bearing down on me. But there are spots where Armstrong needs to place the ball more accurately, that much is clear.
This NC State team can likely recover from this and beat their preseason over/under of 6.5 games. But they will need to work a lot harder if they have any hopes of competing near the top of the conference. Clemson ain't "Clemson" right now, but they're still Clemson, plus there's still a trip to a Dave Clawson-led Wake Forest team in Winston-Salem. The schedule may be favorable, but speed bumps abound.