Thursday, October 20, 2011

q&a with Riddick & Reynolds

NC State is this week's foe, of course, and James of Pack blog Riddick & Reynolds was kind enough to answer a litany of questions in great detail.  I was going to just make this part of today's game preview, but your head might be swimming in the length of it all if I don't split it up.  Here is what James had to say about his beloved Wolfpack and other items in general.  Eventually at R&R there'll be more where that came from, so stay tuned.

1. Most UVA fans are wary of the threat Mike Glennon poses at quarterback, but tell us a little about the other half of the offense - the NC State running game.

Until recently, there wasn't much of a running game to speak of. Our top rusher from last year, Mustafa Greene, injured his foot before the season started and never saw the field. His backups proved why they entered the season as backups with their early season performances. The rushing performances were putrid, and the lowest of low points was the negative total rushing yardage performance we saw against Cincinnati.

The last two games, however, have given State fans a little glimmer of hope that the offense won't be ENTIRELY one dimensional from here on out. James Washington gained 109 yards on 25 carries against Central Michigan, but perhaps more importantly, the playcalling from Dana Bible indicated there's more intent to establish the run than fans saw in weeks past. That philosophy allowed the offensive line to engage and be aggressive from the start, and I think that yielded benefits against CMU beyond Washington's rushing yardage total.

As a fan, I want to see more of that playcalling strategy this Saturday. I want to see Bible start out with the goal of rushing the ball as much as the defense will allow, then let Mike Glennon go to work with (hopefully) a softened-up Virginia front seven. Whether or not that actually happens is another story, but I need to see the intent to do so present from the outset.

2. You're probably tired of this topic, so apologies in advance, but what has been the biggest effect of the injuries that have hit the Wolfpack defense? Who do you miss the most? Has anyone been a pleasant surprise in stepping up?

I wrote something along these lines for another Q&A earlier this year: the losses along the defensive line have been devastating and have led to a ripple effect that's made the rest of our defense suspect.

By not being able to get pressure from our front four, we've had to incorporate more blitzes to generate pressure. That's led to vacant spaces where the blitzing linebackers came from, resulting in more wide open crossing patterns underneath that our defensive backs have had to account for. Further, the lack of pressure has given opposing quarterbacks more time to throw, putting additional pressure on our DBs.

If I had to pick one guy I'd like to have back from the injury report, it'd be J.R. Sweezy. He missed a lot of time early in the year but came back briefly during the Georgia Tech game. His impact was felt almost immediately, but as our luck has gone lately, he's now back on the shelf and likely to miss significant time the rest of the year.

Easily the most disappointing thing about this off week has been that virtually no one made any healing progress during the bye. I suppose things could change on the final injury report released prior to the game, but as of now it seems like the bye week did nothing for us, health-wise.

3. What's the NC State perspective on ACC expansion? What do you think of the new members? And, if asked, would NC State make the leap to the SEC?

The ACC's expansion moves were obviously about survival, and to that end I approve of them. Syracuse and Pitt aren't Notre Dame and Texas by any stretch, but they're solid schools nonetheless that will bring great basketball and solid football products with them when they (eventually) get here.

John Swofford's comments Wednesday at Operation Basketball made it sound like he was plenty content to stay at 14 for the time being, but I would bet one of my three kids that the ACC will be at 16 someday soon, likely after the SEC gets done figuring out who it wants to invite to its exclusive, swanky party and the B1G Whatever and PAC Whatever make their reactionary moves. Eventually there will come a time when there are four 16-team leagues suckling from the BCS Bowl money teets and everyone else is relegated to mid-major status. When that time comes, the ACC will have some interesting options on whom to add and the freedom to be a bit picky. (ed. - as you may remember, I'm on record as thinking it's unlikely that the 4x16 model is the future....but I do wholeheartedly agree with James that the ACC didn't expand to 14 just so it could sit at 14.)

Now, had the SEC come a-knockin and asked State to join (with the idea of gaining a foothold in the growing NC TV market), I think our leadership would've been foolish to turn down that kind of an opportunity. Sure, our football program would be a tomato can for likely the next decade or so, but the SEC schools will be swimming in even more cash than they are right now once the league renegotiates its contract. That kind of cash would help buoy an athletic department at State that's cash-hungry at the moment, searching for ways to keep up with the Joneses while not eliminating existing non-revenue programs in the process.

From a basketball standpoint, State would enter the league on day one as one of the more accomplished programs in the SEC with a (theoretically) easier path to its first conference title in over two decades. Not to mention it would get to face Kentucky regularly--a nice fringe benefit. And monetarily speaking, the added cash going forward would ensure State's basketball program wouldn't lack for the resources needed to compete.

But all that said, remaining in the ACC--a league former State basketball coach Everette Case helped found--isn't a bad spot to find yourself in moving forward.

4. Didja miss us? Come game day, it'll be five days shy of four full years since the last matchup between our two teams. Thoughts on the idea of spending so long between games against an opponent that, once upon a time, appeared on the schedule every year? Any ideas on how to fix that (if indeed it bothers you)?

I do hate how the football schedule presents huge gaps between meetings of teams in the other division. We've played Duke a grand total of two times since 2003, and aren't slated to see them again for another couple of years. For two rival schools located in adjacent counties, that's just not right.

The same thing with Virginia...two meetings in seven years' time just doesn't cut it to me. But what can you do? While the league grows, the conference schedule has not, nor seemingly cannot, grow accordingly. So it could mean even GREATER expanses of time pass between school meetings than what we face presently.

The only remedy I can think that might offset some of huge gaps between meetings would be do away with the "home-and-home" back-to-back style of schedule and stage the home and away meetings between cross-divisional foes in alternate years. In other words, you'd skip a year between the home meeting and the away trip. That ensures (in our current 12-team league format) fans and the players get a chance to face a school twice over a four-year span and the meetings will be far less sporadic.

Operating in our new 14-team world of two seven-team divisions, however, you're looking at playing six divisional games and only two cross-divisional games. And for a school like State that has a permanent rival in the other division (UNC), that leaves only ONE rotating game from the Coastal Division every year, assuming the ACC sticks with an eight-game conference schedule. I think the impact of expansion makes it even more critical that some space be added between the home and away meetings to prevent some hypothetical, insane scheduling gaps that would make our current situation look trivial by comparison.

5. How warm is the seat occupied by Tom O'Brien?

Fairly warm, I'd say, and I think most of it deals with things not directly related to our current win/loss record. He's operating under an AD who didn't hire him, for one, and fans right now are irritated by certain aspects of how Tom has structured and run his program.

For one, he insists on targeting undervalued kids and coaching them up, which is fine--if you can guarantee there will be little-to-no injury issues. But as we've seen so far over his tenure, the team's luck with injuries has been quite the opposite. We've been overly struck by the injury bug during his time here, and despite this being his fifth year, Tom still finds himself forced to plug in true freshmen and walkons to fill out a depth chart. Guys, mind you, who were lightly recruited and scheduled to not contribute for another two years at the earliest. Not surprisingly, State's best season under his watch was last season when the team was abnormally healthy from wire to wire, yet even then--with Russell Wilson, Nate Irving and a solid defensive line--we still fell short of making the ACC Championship Game when it was right there for the taking.

There's his hiring and staunch support of Defensive Coordinator Mike Archer, who fielded sub-par defenses prior at Kentucky prior to his firing yet still managed to land a job here due to his connections with O'Brien in the past. Under Archer, State's defenses have been predictable and sieve-like for the most part, yet O'Brien seems to avoid questions about Archer's performance by constantly referencing injuries.

And yes, "The Decision" that ultimately landed Russell Wilson at Wisconsin for his final year of eligibility has irked a not-so-small number of State fans. Having Russell here wouldn't improve our defense any, so at best State is a bad defensive team with a great quarterback, but when it's perceived that you willingly scorned the school's third-best quarterback in favor of YOUR guy, you can expect to catch some heat. (ed. - man, would I be hacked off about this whole thing if I were a Pack fan.  Supposedly the reason Wilson left - or at least part of it - is because he was told he had to choose between football and baseball and couldn't play both.  Yes, the whole thing was a little bit like a cross between Brett Favre and LeBron James.....but the kicker is that Wisconsin has no baseball program. Gee, thanks, Russell.  And thank you, Coach, for helping turn Wisconsin into a national title contender while our defense and running game flop around like a fish out of water.  That'd be the theme of every post ever if this was a Wolfpack blog.)

While State is 3-3, all three losses now look somewhat understandable given how well Wake, Georgia Tech and Cincinnati have played thus far. And Mike Glennon's performance is actually been pretty good, given the circumstances, so it's hard to pin the three losses on The Decision necessarily. It's all the other stuff--the recruiting, the trend of massive injuries, the insistence on being inflexible on matters like his coordinator's performance or the fact he's got an AD that's eager to revamp the department in her own image--that's bearing down on Tom at the moment.

Honestly, if we don't make a bowl and he retains his job at the end of the year, I'll be surprised.

6. Prediction time. First for Saturday's game, and then for the rest of NC State's season.

I'm horrible at predictions, so I tend to look at what the computer models and Vegas think about the matter and adjust accordingly based on what my gut tells me. Since Vegas has us as nearly six-point underdogs and the computers are in that same neighborhood, my gut--when considering State didn't get any folks of note healthy and back into the lineup and what UVA did to GT--is equally pessimistic. I'll say State 24, Virginia 31.

Thanks beaucoup to James.  Game preview tonight.

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