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Game Analysis: NC State Staves Off Marshall

NC State went to the wire with Marshall on Saturday and pulled out a 48-41 win in a game where a ton of things happened. It was the opposite of last week’s Louisville loss, where basically nothing happened.

The season debut for MJ Morris did not come without its hiccups, but he was the guy you wanted him to be, and it helped State get by a pesky Marshall team that found a way to play above the matchups in this game.

MJ Morris does exactly what you asked for

I think you got exactly what you wanted from MJ Morris on Saturday. He was aggressive and also made good decisions. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. He took his shots when he got one-on-ones, stood strong in the pocket, and made good reads. He’s probably not going to post an absurd completion percentage this year because of his willingness to take shots, but that’s okay.

The turnovers are not worrisome if you’re asking me. If these were products of poor reads, horrible throws, or just forcing the ball into coverage, that would be different. They weren’t.

Interception #1

Morris makes a good read and delivers a throw that is a little too far out in front. It probably still should have been caught, but it bounces off KC’s hands into a defender’s.

Interception #2

The Marshall defender blows up the bubble screen. This is tape study at work. He knows what’s coming, and a bad snap takes Morris’ eyes away from the play, so he doesn’t see this immediately. He probably still should not have thrown this ball, but he was one of three people that messed up here.

Interception #3

Here, the ball got hit up in the air at the line of scrimmage. That's all there is to this.

Morris did plenty of good things, including this shot to Timmons.

There is a connection here, and Morris trusts it when he gets one-on-one with Timmons. Here he reads cover 3 and knows he’ll have Timmons on an island as the only receiver on the right side. Timmons gets the corner to bite on the double move and once again, you see the value of the speed and acceleration, and he leaves him behind.

This is what I’ve been begging for, the scheming of more of these chances for Timmons. He is the team’s best outside receiver, and they have to get him more involved in the offense. Timmons has a wide catch radius and plenty of speed. I cannot stress enough how rare it is to have the combination of natural abilities that this guy has shown in spurts. His ceiling is somewhere north of Neptune. He needs opportunities, and Morris made that happen, and took at least one other shot to him in this game. Timmons and Concepcion should lead this team in snaps at receiver every single week.

Now that my Timmons rant is over, back to Morris. This is an incredible throw for a touchdown. The accuracy is off the charts.

I’m obviously joking, and it’s hilarious this counts as a touchdown pass. This one, though, was an actual good read and delivery from Morris.

Marshall is showing a linebacker blitz here, and Morris knows he’ll have space in the middle of the field for the in-breaking routes of Concepcion and Gray. He could have hit either. He reads the outward facing hips of the corner covering Concepcion and delivers a perfect throw on the break. It’s a decisive and accurate throw from a quarterback who looks comfortable trusting the blitz pickup, which had a good day by the way.

The final point on Morris is that his willingness to take shots helps everything work better. Doeren is an old-fashioned guy who would love to operate from a run-first approach, but you have to play through your quarterback when you struggle this much to run the ball. You’ll note on Michael Allen’s touchdown run below that State is running into a light box. You’ll see more light boxes if you can push the ball down the field. It’s throwing to set up the run instead of the other way around, and it helped State in this game.

Run game finds explosives

It does seem like the offensive line is getting better. Bringing back McMahon was always going to help make things a little more organized, and it did in the run game. It wasn’t some destructive ground-and-pound attack, but State was able to bust some explosive runs for the first time since 1953.

Anthony Carter is one of the inexperienced guards that you’re hoping to see some development from, and this is a fantastic combination block from him.

Carter(75), who is the right guard, delivers a blow to the defensive end as part of a double team with Tim McKay, then releases back toward the crashing linebacker, who he obliterates and seals, creating the running lane. This is awesome stuff from the young guard.

Carter had a great game. State had two explosive touchdown runs and he helped open up both lanes.

This is a nasty kickout block on the counter play. Carter sends the linebacker here to the shadow realm. Watch him pull from the right guard position and absolutely ruin this linebacker's day. Saturday was some nasty stuff from Carter, and he looks confident. This is also a good play from Belton(74) to wash down the right side and then release to the other side. These are positive signs from the offensive line. State is working hard to get athletes into this unit and these guys do move well. Duke certainly is a taller task though.

I also really liked the sweeps with Concepcion and Gray. These count in the passing yards column but they’re really run plays. It hasn’t always worked, but I think State has done a good job finding creative ways to try and manufacture a run game when the traditional run game has been failing them.

Trent Pennix comes to life

This is a fake screen designed to do exactly what it did, which is spring Pennix down the sideline. The deep post from Lesane removes the safety from the play, and Pennix sells a block while Mimms gets into the flat to make this appear as if it’s a screen. What’s interesting about this play, though, is that it doesn’t really work. When you really get someone with this play, you’ll see the defensive back or linebacker run right by the tight end, leaving him wide open. Marshall did this to NC State in this very game, and we’ll look at that in a minute.

What’s cool about this is that Pennix makes this play happen with his route. The DB stays home as Pennix pretends to set up the block. What gets him is Trent’s outside step, as if he’s trying to seal the DB to the inside. This is what the DB actually bites on, and you can see him extend his arm to prevent Pennix from getting his hands on him as he turns his hips to try and get outside in order to contain this screen to the inside. That’s when Pennix explodes back inside and leaves him behind.

I wrote about the problems that a fast, athletic tight end like Pennix can create, and it finally came around in this game. You cannot make these missteps, because he’s too fast to recover to. That’s not a linebacker he’s dusting either. It’s a defensive back.

Defense looks the same

Defensively, State wasn’t quite as bad as 41 points may indicate, but it definitely got eaten up at times by Marshall’s misdirection and option concepts. Teams have found ways to use State’s aggressiveness against it this year, with Marshall and Notre Dame in particular fooling the eyes of the defense many times over.

This is the fake screen concept talked about earlier.

Ayden White is the corner here, and he just runs right by the receiver in aggressive pursuit of the screen. If it feels like State is vulnerable to explosive plays this year, it's because they are, and this is why. Almost every big pass play State has allowed has come with some sort of bait, and the biggest weakness of this defense is how prone they are to biting on it.

Scott gets eaten here by the read option.

For anyone who doesn’t know, on a read option play, the quarterback is reading the outside linebacker post-snap. If the linebacker crashes down toward the ball, the QB pulls it from the running back and gets outside. If the linebacker stays outside, he gives it to the back. Scott crashes hard here, and it’s an easy decision.

Option football allows you to basically ensure the defender makes the wrong choice by responding to what they do. It’s very hard to defend, which is why everyone does it. State did not handle it well.

This was also on the first touchdown drive.

It’s just a little tight end leak play, and everyone who has a chance to cut this off crashes down to the quarterback. State is aggressive in its pursuit of the run, and Marshall used that against it on many occasions with a lot of success.

That’s really the one weakness of this defense, which has been really good otherwise. Rasheen Ali had a pedestrian 63 yards on 14 carries, and did not manage an explosive run for the first time all year. This isn’t a huge surprise, as State has dealt with traditional run games very well this year. The Pack also had six sacks on a unit that has given up two all year. The defensive line got after the quarterback. Vann and Hibbler threw a birthday party in the backfield, and it wasn't anyone's birthday. They did it just because they could.

Also, Payton Wilson, again.

Coaching mismanagement

I love Dave Doeren, but for all his exploits that have made that so, he makes me want to rip my hair out sometimes. This was a poorly managed football game, really in four different ways, starting with the first quarter.

It was clear at the beginning that the staff was not ready to trust Morris until he settled in. It really wanted to slow-walk him into the game. Morris had three true dropbacks in the first quarter, and on all three, he made a correct and decisive throw.

In their defense, he did put the ball in harm’s way with a couple of throws that were off target, although I would argue they still should have been caught. You can trust this quarterback to make decisions. The desire to simplify really showed on the third and 12 quarterback draw call. This is more of a general criticism than a Morris-specific one. At times, it feels like State doesn’t trust its players to make decisions, and that it would rather make those decisions for them with pre-read plays, and as a result, it’s spent the better part of the last two years managing the offense to death. If you don’t trust a guy to make the right calls, he shouldn’t be out there, and if he has to be out there, then there is no viable alternative to trusting him. Let your players play the game.

Second was the end-of-half sequence. To State’s credit, they turned it loose in the second quarter, and good things happened. Then they sat down on a four-point lead with an excruciating outside run, counter run, QB draw sequence and ended up behind at the half. It’s a depressingly similar sequence of play calls to what we saw when State was trying to close out Virginia. How on earth do you not learn from that? I don’t know.

Third was the Brennan Armstrong series at the goal line. You’re off base if you think this was a good idea that was just executed poorly. This was not a good idea. There is this concept that’s floated around that Armstrong is a better runner than Morris, and this is probably true, but not really to a material extent. When Armstrong comes into the game, Marshall is sold on the run, and they go after it. That’s the thing about specialized packages like this. It’s generally pretty obvious what you’re doing.

I’ll give State credit for one thing here. Armstrong did not actually run the ball. I thought the pass play on second and goal was actually a good call. Nobody on the defense even had a passing awareness of Delbert Mimms as he stood all alone in the endzone, but Armstrong has not looked comfortable with pressure all year, and you can’t just jam a guy in this spot knowing he's going to see aggressive defense and expect him to be on the ball when he has no feel for this game. He panicked and never kept his eyes downfield. It was wholly unfair to Armstrong and also just very self-defeating in general.

Finally, the short kickoffs were super strange. For anyone who wasn’t at the game, there was a pretty stiff breeze coming out of the north endzone, so you’re allowing a return basically every time you kick in that direction. Marshall’s 43% touchback rate and Julian Gray’s prowess as a returner creates an iffy situation there for the Herd, but I can’t figure out why State would do this. Do you really not trust your kickoff coverage team at all? How is giving Marshall the ball at the 45 supposed to be complementary football?

Update: Doeren's postgame comments on the kicks, which add some clarification. Credit: Pack Pride

I mean, if you look at how Marshall's kickoff return was lined up, they had six guys on their front line and everyone else was like 50 yards away. We're trying to kick it in between the two things, not kick it to the guys in the front line. It was a good call both times and it was a terrible kick both times, you have to execute. If that ball would have landed where we wanted it to, we would have made a mad scramble for the football. We were kicking into the wind, we're trying not to put the ball in number two's hands. Again, sometimes plans are great, but you have to execute and that was a kick we practiced all week and practiced it well. We felt confident that he would kick it well. He missed it the first time we thought the second time you do a good job so he didn't and obviously that's on us for calling it.

Final points

I was impressed with Marshall. They did a lot with a personnel grouping that was overmatched and a quarterback that struggled to stretch the field. I’m a fan of the creativity Trickett and Huff brought to Raleigh on offense. They created a lot of confusion, and while we consider those mistakes from an NC State perspective, they’re good plays from a Marshall perspective. You have to give them credit. It’s a good football team.

It’s not a win for State that will make anyone perk up, but it was a good day for the team, particularly the offense. They debuted a lot of new stuff, and a lot of it worked. In fact, it worked well enough to win a game where they gave up 41 points. Six games in, State probably is what it is defensively, which is a generally stout group that will give up a handful of explosive plays each game. Offensively, this could still go a lot of ways, and Saturday should leave you optimistic about the immediate future of that unit.


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