NC State beat Virginia on Friday night in a football game that definitely happened. This was a game for State that rivaled the likes of 2019 Syracuse and 2022 ECU in terms of ugly wins, and while a win is a win, Friday night’s experiment left a lot to be desired.
Brennan Armstrong had, for the third time in four games, a wildly inconsistent performance. It has to be a source of frustration for the offense, and most of all Brennan himself, that the quarterback has shown an ability to make some incredibly high-level throws, but cannot seem to do so on a consistent basis.
I personally loved adding Armstrong in the offseason, and I am not writing him off here. This analysis is reflective of the games played, not necessarily predictive of the ones to come. With each passing week though, it becomes a more valid question if this is just the Armstrong experience.
Virginia played a good bit of cover 2 and Tampa 2 and very little man. The looks themselves were a little more creative than what VMI gave them, but it was zone most of the night. Defensive alignments with two-high safeties are most vulnerable in the middle of the field, on top of the underneath coverage but underneath the safeties. We saw State have success attacking the middle of the field on Friday, including the long touchdown to Concepcion. I thought it was a well-called game from Anae, but there was certainly some missing execution.
This is a high-low read for Armstrong in the middle with a stick route underneath and a post over the top.
For anyone who doesn't know, a high-low read refers to a route combination designed to attack zone coverage by stacking routes between the layers of coverage. A route that breaks above the underneath coverage layer, combined with a route that breaks underneath that layer, forces the defender to basically choose. If he sinks, the quarterback can throw the underneath route. If he climbs toward the underneath route, the quarterback can go over his head and hit the mid-depth route. Examples include sail concepts and smash concepts.
The safety(20) is the read here for Armstrong, and when the safety climbs to sit on the stick underneath, Vereen(11) comes open on the post. Armstrong throws the stick, and it should have been intercepted. This is there, but it's a bad read and the result is near disaster.
This one is the opposite. A good read but a bad throw.
Armstrong sees the corner sit on the out route from Concepcion and has a chance to drop this to Timmons in the window between the layers of coverage. The throw leads Timmons too far and he can't catch up to the ball.
It's debatable, but I think this was Armstrong's worst game of the season so far. He still made some high-level throws, and under no circumstances can you discount the difference his legs have made, but these missed opportunities hurt. It's not as if he's way off, but he has not played at his highest level yet this year.
This was the first game all season where State didn't have a drop. I do expect the receiving corps to only go up from here, and a lot of that has to do with Kevin Concepcion.
Concepcion is the team’s best receiver. I think everyone knew this was a possibility, but the speed with which it was established is impressive and also an indictment of the personnel shortcomings State dealt with last year. As a route runner, he is just on another level.
This route is so crisp. Concepcion's outside step gets the safety to turn his hips ever so slightly, and the freshman receiver has so much quickness and explosion that that's all it takes. You can see the safety drop his left foot, and the amount of separation Concepcion creates in the next half second is really something. This is what getting open looks like.
Personally, I want to see more Timmons on the outside. He and Rozner are State’s two best pure outside receivers. Timmons has had a bit of a messy start to the season, but he gives you the potential for explosiveness that State is just not generating with some other guys because of his combo of size and speed.
Lesane is really a slot receiver playing on the outside. I’m not sure I understand why State continues to try and force this. I’m not trying to bag on anyone, especially not someone who has given their collegiate career to this program, but it just isn’t happening with Lesane on the outside. He has good ball skills, but he doesn’t have great straight-line speed and he’s not bigger than the cornerbacks that cover him. He doesn’t separate from coverage effectively enough and he’s not a guy you can throw 50-50 balls to. I want to see more Timmons in this spot. Only Gray on the outside has better straight-line speed and only Rozner and Collins are bigger. There's a lot there with Timmons, and he's shown an ability to adjust to the ball in the past.
State’s receivers as a whole so far this year have overperformed expectations, and I think it’s fair to say the pass protection has as well. Offensive line was a huge concern for a lot of people, and it’s really been fine. It's not elite, but it's sufficient. State had a few miscommunications with some of Virginia’s blitzes on Friday, but it’s playing with a backup center. For the most part it was good enough, and has been all year.
State did miss Jordan Houston as a pass protector a little bit. The running back’s job as a pass protector is to first identify where blitzers are coming from. It's far more than just blocking a guy. It’s an entire pre-snap read and a legitimate skill that isn’t always easy. This is part of the reason why Houston was revered enough to get snaps over Allen and Raphael. Here, Allen does a good job pre-snap, but he whiffs on the block and it ends up affecting the throw.
Defensively, I thought State played a good game. The defense really shut down the run game, which was expected. Virginia can’t really run the ball, and the rush defense is pretty sound. There was no Devon Betty (congrats to Devon on having a kid! Some things are bigger than football), but Caden Fordham had a good game and he needs more playing time going forward. He’s an instinctive player, and he blew up a few run plays including this one on 4th and 1.
Fordham(10) doesn't make the tackle, but he beats the block and disrupts the flow of the play by penetrating into the backfield. I really like this guy. He's going to be a really good player.
State’s defensive backfield has gone through some stuff this year, and what it did on Friday wasn’t great but it was an admirable effort. Getting hit up for a few big pass plays was a given, what with State's concerns at safety and UVA playing an anti-aircraft missile launcher at quarterback, in addition to having two really good receivers and not much else. That happened a few times, but Virginia was pretty limited everywhere else.
A shoutout is in order to Bishop Fitzgerald, who recorded an enormous PBU in the fourth quarter that resulted in Sean Brown’s first interception. Both of these guys have had some struggles early in the season, but they combined to make a very important and very cool play, and credit is due for that.
*Grits teeth* Now let’s talk about the end of the game.
This sequence to me was extremely disappointing.
Doeren loves to talk about playing complementary football, which, for the record, is a goal and not a strategy. This sequence at the end of the game was the antithesis of complementary football, though.
When your defense generates two turnovers in the fourth quarter of a one-possession game, and you still have to ask more of them, that is not complementary. When that happens because of hyper-conservative play calling from inside of a metaphorical turtle shell, you’re not even trying.
This was so disappointing because of how comparable of a situation it was to the Boston College game last year, and the game management just turtled the same exact way. Calling two dive plays and then a QB draw on 3rd and 10 is a concession. It is a plain-as-day signal that you’re playing to get one more stop from your defense, which has already done its job. Nothing about that is attempting to complement the play of the defense. It’s just pinning the game on their back once again. I love Dave Doeren, but he doesn’t always try to play complementary football, even as he preaches its importance.
I actually had no issue with how the fourth quarter was called until that point. State stayed pretty aggressive playing with an eight-point lead. It took a shot to Concepcion on 3rd and 4, and while there was some griping about this, I loved this decision. UVA couldn’t cover this man all night, and Armstrong reads cover 1 man and decides to take the shot.
He went for the knockout punch here. I appreciated it. The fact that it didn’t work doesn’t mean you should bail on the entire concept of trying to win with the ball.
Armstrong is a lot of people's biggest thing from this game, and he may not have lived up to the billing yet, but these things are complex. Guys go through slumps where they don't play as well as they could. Simply coming up short on some plays is far more forgivable than that overly conservative series and the way it was called. That was a conscious decision, and I'm having trouble ignoring it.
At the end of the day, State won the game. It has a lot to work on, but doing so at 1-0 in the league is better than doing so at 0-1. Nobody can take that away. Virginia did basically hand this game over at the end, but those things also have a way of evening out. For example, if pass interference is officiated correctly in this game, or if intentionally poking someone in the eye isn't suddenly legal, it's not a one-possession game in the final minute. State got a few raw deals over the course of this game, and then it got a huge gift at the end. That's the way it goes sometimes.