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Offensive Line Play Catalyzed The Offensive Turnaround

If the current NC State football team played the NC State football team from August 31st, the current team would win 86-0. The transformation this team underwent over the last five games is one of the most impressive things I've ever seen an NC State football team do. The inputs for such a thing are multifold, and what we ended up seeing was a completely redesigned offense, a process that began with higher-level play from the line.


Early on in the season, State was trying play through a much more traditional spread look. The motion rate was lower and the formations were much more consistent. It felt like the Pack was trying to build its offense around the arm of its quarterback, spreading the field to give him opportunities to make pre-snap reads and throw the ball around. 


The run/pass rate was skewed because of how frequently Armstrong scrambled, but State was very much putting this offense on the shoulders of the quarterback. This was most visible in the Notre Dame game, where the senior threw nearly fifty passes and State’s four running backs combined for 14 carries. State called over 50 pass plays and less than 25 run plays that day. Some of that is a function of facing a deficit, but more of it is a function of offensive intention. 


I don’t believe State trusted its running game. It’s no secret that this has not been a great run blocking team for the past few years, an issue that was compounded by McMahon’s absence. Running back play had also left a lot to be desired earlier in the season. Allen struggled with vision and while Houston was better, he wasn't running through tackles. The pieces just were not fitting, and It felt like the priority for State was to spread things out, lighten up the boxes, and let Armstrong operate with his arm and his feet. There were a lot more full-field reads and a lot more complexity being dealt to the quarterback, and it did not work. 


This was State trying to run outside zone earlier in the year. This is awful, almost as bad as the GIF quality.


Here's another where Anthony Carter gets knocked down trying to reach block the defensive tackle.


Successful designed runs early in the season were few and far between for State. That changed in the last three games. The biggest catalyst in the Pack’s offensive resurgence wasn’t Armstrong, and it wasn’t Anae. It was the offensive line. Armstrong played at a high level the last three games, and Anae completely rebuilt the offense’s identity down the stretch. Both deserve flowers for their work, but State’s sudden shift to a run-first team couldn’t have happened without the development from the offensive line. 


It really started with McMahon’s return, which helped shore up some of the disorganization that was a problem against Virginia and Louisville. In addition to just being an experienced center able to quarterback the offensive line, McMahon is a good run blocker who played at a higher level the last half of the year, and his impact was felt. From there, the group improved dramatically the rest of the season. 


For all the intricaices of the offense that developed throughout the season, and there were a lot, the fact that State could just line up and run outside zone and be effective completely changed what this team was.

This is a dominant outside zone play. Peak successfully reaches the defensive end and then mauls the dude. The only thing you might have wanted here was a little bit better contact from Shirley at tight end, but he did enough. It's a dominating effort from the line.


In addition to raw player development, there was some major sorting to be done this year, and it took a while. Against UConn, the regular ball carriers were Armstrong, Houston, Allen, and Mimms. By the UNC game, two of those guys had been supplanted by Concepcion and Raphael. Raphael ended up being the best running back on the team. I doubt anyone saw that coming, but it’s definitely the case. Cooper and Eason played much more on the interior of the offensive line early in the year, and both struggled. Eventually, State shifted McKay to guard and Peak to tackle, and that was the group down the stretch of the season. 


Once the personnel started delivering, that’s when we started to see more exotic formations and motions to launch run concepts from. Scheming helped State generate a few explosive plays against Clemson and Miami, two games where it had poor quarterback play and no consistent offense. In the last three games, though, the formation exotics were more of a complement to an offense that was effective running base stuff.


When State went to Winston-Salem, it ran wild on the Demon Deacons, and it did so without too much craziness. It was a lot of zone and QB gap scheme runs that generated some explosiveness all on its own. It was just simply playing better up front and had the right people carrying the ball. 


Watch the violent kick-out block from McKay on this QB counter

Peak's emergence allowed State to get better guard play with McKay. His kick out here combined with the physical down block from the double team opens a massive hole, and then Armstrong is decisive when the lead block shows inside leverage. By doing this with the RB as the lead blocker, State is running into a six-man box with six blockers. Armstrong's running ability helped even out those box counts, and everybody has just started playing at a higher level.


The quarterback play during Armstrong’s return was also managed well. State was able to take some of the onus off of his arm because it could run the ball now, and it was able to build him some confidence with some pocket movement concepts that cut the field in half, simplified the reads, and made it easy to run if it broke down. Armstrong barely threw the ball more than 10 yards down the field against Wake, but he was two for three with a touchdown doing so. 


State was able to stay ahead of the chains, so it didn’t put the quarterback in long-yardage dropbacks where he would face pressure, which is where he struggled early in the season. It all built upon the emergence of a run game. Armstrong would end up throwing the ball a lot more against Virginia Tech, but with the pocket holding up better and State staying ahead of the chains, the quarterback just looked vastly more comfortable doing so. 


The most fascinating part of the turnaround was the twist ending, when State lost its ability to call quarterback runs and still managed to pile drive UNC with Armstrong’s arm doing most of the work. The quarterback’s injury at the end of the Virginia Tech game forcibly altered the offense heading into UNC, and State had to forgo a lot of the read and QB run concepts that it used effectively in the prior two games. 


Armstrong had 22 rushing yards, his lowest count as a starter all year. He threw for 334. State ran an RPO-heavy game plan, something you did not see a ton of in the prior two games, and Armstrong was lights out. The fact that the offense seemingly got better after losing one of its most important elements is so impressive. State still ran for 170 yards behind Concepcion and Raphael.


When you boil it down, it’s a case study in the value of balance. Once State was capable of running the football, it wasn’t just better at running the football, it was better at everything. I don’t think it was possible to have that balance at the beginning of the year, which is why the staff tried to work around things with a heaping helping of screens, QB draws, and spread out formations. The explosive plays and the creativity that helped create them are testaments to what State has in Robert Anae, but the fact that it could suddenly line up, run inside zone, and be effective doing it was the launch point for the transformation. All of it, Anae, the line, the different personnel usages, Armstrong, it all works together. The line's resurgence really made the rest of it possible.


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