It would be hard to put together a more self-destructive effort than NC State did in its 45-24 loss to Notre Dame. The game itself was much more competitive than the margin, which ballooned to 28 in the fourth quarter, would indicate. The Pack held its own and then some when it came to the actual matchups, but vomited all over itself about 18 different times on its way to the loss.
State lost this game on its own accord. Its effort against a top10 team was compelling enough to give it a very real chance, but the buildup of errors eventually put that to bed. Notre Dame made quite a few mistakes of its own, and if you’re going to beat a team like this, you have to capitalize on those and not make even more yourself. Notre Dame truly did leave the door open on Saturday, but State did not walk through it.
The Irish did not consistently move the football for most of this game, but it hit a handful of explosive plays and took advantage of a couple short fields to pull away. State had a couple of key busts defensively in the first half that opened up huge plays for Irish, but when it wasn’t doing that, it generally held Notre Dame in check.
Audric Estime had 14 carries for 134 yards, but one of them went for 80. 13 carries for 54 yards is right at a modest 4 YPC. In fact, his second longest run of the game went for 9 yards. State had good contain in the running game, but it let Notre Dame off the hook on a couple of counter plays where it lost gap integrity.
This was arguably Notre Dame's best play of the game. Alt at left tackle is an All-American, and he gets Devon Betty (26) on the kick out block pretty easily while the guard seals Wilson to the inside. Both Battle (7) and Brown (0) have a chance to bail this out after State loses contain but Brown gets tripped and Battle appears to get held up by Hartman's fake just long enough. A faster flow gives you a chance to save this play with a tackle in space.
Notre Dame ran a similar concept earlier and almost busted it, but Boykin made a great tackle in space. Outside of those two plays, there was very little successful run game for the Irish. 6 of Audric Estime's 14 carries went for two yards or less. When you can play a team this strong at offensive line and in the backfield and give up just one explosive run play, you're giving yourself a chance to stay in the game. State did more than enough there. Notre Dame doesn't offer anything spectacular at receiver and Sam Hartman is frankly not all that impressive. If you told me this was going to be the run defense's performance, I would've felt good, but State truly let Notre Dame off the hook in nearly every other facet of the game.
After it finally cracked the scoreboard late in the first half, the Pack had a chance to go to the break only down three, but instead, a boneheaded play from a veteran cornerback turned a guy wide open down the sideline and it was a 17-7 game at half.
Of course, the worst part was the drops. Things happen, mistakes happen, drops happen, but the rate of this so far this season is just completely and utterly inexcusable. Porter Rooks had two drops. Bradley Rozner had one. Kevin Concepcion had one. None were of a particularly high degree of difficulty. I’m going to cut myself off here before I write something I wish I didn’t. Catch the ball though.
When you talk about this game being defined by mistakes, the point of this is not to Jeff Bzdelik this specific game, it’s not to absolve State of its errors as if they were just happenstance. Some people inevitably interpret this as some sort of acquittal, as if dropping passes is something that happened to State, and not something State did, as if noting this is pretending it's a product of something other than quality of play. Nobody is saying that. That is not the point. The point is that losing a game because you filled your pants is very different than losing a game because you got knocked around at the line of scrimmage, or you got run off the field by a much faster team, or you got outschemed. None of the latter three things happened. State was competitive until it forced itself out of the game. That's important, because self-inflicted defeat is more immediately fixable than just getting beat.
What that means is that the bones are good. I predicted a 17-point Notre Dame win, and I was close, but I did not expect to see State in position to tie the game in the fourth quarter. I thought the defensive front would struggle and Armstrong would be chased around all day as State struggled to create separation down the field. I was expecting a mistake-free effort to be necessary for this game to be competitive.
Still, though, with all the sloppiness in the first three quarters, there was NC State down a score with the ball in the final 17 minutes of the game, twice actually. It was there. The play that really did it was Kevin Concepcion’s drop, which conveniently landed right in the hands of a Notre Dame safety who must have thought it was Christmas morning. This was the fourth third-down conversion of the game that bounced right off the hands of a receiver. It cannot be overstated how much these killed the Pack. Four separate drives ended (or should have ended) because of a drop, and the last one was the nail in the coffin as it gave Notre Dame a short field. A drive later, down 14, Brennan Armstrong forced his worst pass of the game and suddenly it looked like a blowout. Two awful plays, two short fields, a one-score game becomes a 38-17 mess in a matter of minutes. It did not have to be like this.
The biggest surprise of the game was how State held up at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It came out screaming on the defensive front, shutting down the interior ground game easily and then generating a sack on a play where Davin Vann and Red Hibbler just straight whooped the pass protection one on one. This is one of the best offensive lines in America, and State was up to the task. As mentioned, Notre Dame’s run game was very limited. It had one explosive run play. Its second longest run of the game was a quarterback draw that just took advantage of some deep zone. We knew State had a strong defensive front but I was convinced it would be overwhelmed today. It was not at all.
On the other side, State still can’t run the ball, and it basically didn’t even try on Saturday, but it held up much better in pass protection than expected. It only gave up one sack, which was a coverage sack, and Notre Dame’s defensive backfield could be had when Armstrong had time to throw. This goes back to the original point that the plays were there. State wasn’t at some physical or coaching disadvantage to the point where it couldn’t create opportunities. It just couldn’t execute.
Armstrong had some downfield accuracy issues against Uconn. I chalked those up as rust last week but unfortunately, they were still very much present against Notre Dame. Here he takes a shot to Lesane and throws a pick.
This is a tough play to make. Lesane is covered well here, but he has a chance if the throw is perfect. Instead Armstrong leaves the ball short and inside, and Lesane has to slow up for it. You cannot leave this ball short and inside. That's actually the worst place you could put it. It's a bad throw. You know Armstrong can make this throw though, because he did it exactly to the exact same receiver later in the game for a huge gain.
Here's the one that was caught.
Both go routes, both well covered. This is why State wanted Armstrong, among other reasons. This is an incredible throw. He can make these throws. He just hasn't done so consistently this season.
This one really hurt.
This should have been a touchdown. It’s a simple one-on-one and you can start to see the difference the speed and athleticism State has recruited can make. State created nothing from these situations last year. Gray beats the cornerback and a tie game is right there. It’s badly underthrown and it’s an incompletion. Opportunity created. Opportunity missed.
Armstrong threw some nice balls too, and his stats don’t fully represent his performance that well because of the drops and the situations the drops ended up creating, but still, he really needs to be more accurate. Some players just stink. Brennan Armstrong is not that. He's proven that. He can make the throws that he's missed so far this year.
Javonte Vereen had a nice game, and he, Concepcion, and Rozner are my top three receivers right now. Concepcion had a few really painful mistakes in this game, but those can’t define someone in his second game. He can run a nasty route. He gets open and needs to be out there.
This is one of Concepcion's (top of screen) many good routes. He's very good at selling, and here he gets the DB to open his hips toward the sideline and blasts by him on the in cut. Concepcion is fast but also has great acceleration. He's a very polished freshman. Unfortunately, he fell down here before getting the first down and it was fourth down.
Here the acceleration is really on display. Concepcion is in the slot beats this DB easily. in the theme of the game though, Armstrong just overthrows the ball. Opportunity created. Opportunity missed.
Keyon Lesane made a really nice catch, and he remains a guy who has good hands, but he just doesn’t create enough separation. I get that you can’t put guys out there if they won’t catch the ball, and that makes Lesane appealing because he doesn’t drop the ball, but you also have to get the speed and quickness out there or you limit your offense’s ability to be explosive. That’s what happened last year.
Defensively, the only real knock was poor discipline on the play action. The Irish cooked State with variations of tight end leak plays repeatedly. It was the only thing it did offensively that was consistently effective. Eye discipline was a problem.
Both DBs bite on the play action and whoever is responsible for the tight end here is late, and the tight end then scores a touchdown, which is generally what you don’t want when you’re a defense.
Here’s another. The window cuts off Bishop Fitzgerald here, but it sure looks like he’s supposed to carry this tight end based on Sean Brown’s eventual reaction in the endzone and Brown’s lack of depth. Fitzgerald bites hard on the play action, like he may have hurt his teeth. Brown ends up between two tight ends as the only guy in coverage and it’s another wide open tight end on the play action. This happened five or six different times in this game.
From here, State gets VMI, Virginia, Louisville, and Marshall. VMI is an FCS school, Virginia is real bad, and Marshall has had a weird start to the year but that’s one you expect to win. If State can win a home Friday-nighter against Louisville, which should be a good game, it has a really strong chance to start 5-1. Notre Dame was the best team on the schedule, and I’m going to hammer this home again. The bones are good with this team. They competed with Notre Dame in places where I thought they’d be overmatched. I would have bet the farm that Notre Dame finished with more sacks than NC State. The pieces are there to have a great season if they can execute on the opportunities that said pieces create.
The receivers are kind of a microcosm of the whole thing. You can’t catch the ball if you can’t get open. Getting open is harder than catching the ball. They did the hard part but not the easy part. That’s obviously reductive for comedic effect, but State was able to scheme guys open, run good routes, and protect the quarterback. The hard parts were done, but then they didn’t make accurate throws or catch the ball.
What this game is for State is a gut check. There are opportunities ahead. This team is capable of winning any one game you pick from the remaining schedule, but you have to clean up the mistakes. Getting Notre Dame in week two gives you an opportunity to face what happened in a game that ultimately doesn’t mean much. Now you have a get-right game, and it’s time to get right.