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Forget Big Numbers; Defense Improving

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 22, 2003 RALEIGH — When N.C. State's defense gave up a school-record 586 passing yards to Texas Tech quarterback B.J. Symons, a couple of long-time ACC observers wondered aloud: Will Wolfpack fans want the head of Chuck Amato's defensive coordinator, too? The answer: Probably, though there is a slight problem in that there is no one to fire. The Wolfpack is still the only team in Division I-A that doesn't have a defensive coordinator. Believe it or not, giving up that many yards was part of a defensive plan that worked pretty well throughout the Texas Tech game, a 49-21 N.C. State victory at Carter-Finley Stadium that ended the Wolfpack's two-game losing streak. The Pack made use of five, six and seven defensive backs at various times against the pass-happy Red Raiders. There were times when the defense had three linemen rushing the passer and one linebacker roaming in the middle, with four cornerbacks and three safeties playing in a loose zone down the field. The result? A lot of passing yards, but only a couple of scores for the Red Raiders, and no touchdowns when it really mattered. As hard as it was to say that giving up 681 yards in total offense was a good thing, it wasn't totally unexpected. “If you have a great quarterback like Texas Tech has, you know how to pick apart a zone defense and how to find the seams,” junior cornerback Greg Golden said. “If we have seven guys in there at one time who know what they are doing, and there are a lot of skill guys out there, there is really no one who can break open a big run without having someone who can contest their speed and go get them.” What that means is that the Wolfpack coaches were willing to give up some yards but believed they had better athletes than Texas Tech and felt confident enough to give up a rather large cushion. Symons certainly made some big passes. He had 14 completions of 17 yards or more, and they accounted for well over half of his yards. But it wasn't until the fourth quarter, well after the Wolfpack had the game in hand, that Symons hit a long pass for a touchdown. He had a 36-yarder to Johnny Mack and a 50-yarder to Cody Fuller late in the game that made the score look a little more respectable. Still, Amato said he was taken aback by the sheer number of yards given up by his defense, which allowed the fewest yards per game in the ACC last year. Then he wadded up the stat sheet and threw it away. “We did give up all those yards,” Amato said, “but the object of the game is to get the ball to the end zone.” His defense did a pretty good job of preventing that. The two times the Wolfpack offense gave the ball away, once on a Golden fumble on a kickoff return and the other on a Josh Brown fumble, the defense held Texas Tech to three plays and out. Both times, the Raiders were deep in Wolfpack territory. Considering that State's defense stopped Tech's offense five times on fourth down, despite all the yards given up, Amato had reason to believe the defense that looked so bad against Wake Forest was progressing nicely as the Wolfpack headed into the rest of the ACC schedule. Kicking Game: Wonders, Woes After a couple of glaring mistakes in the kicking game in back-to-back losses to Wake Forest and Ohio State, Amato said he believed his team needed to do something impressive on special teams against Texas Tech. That's exactly what happened. On State's first offensive possession, the Wolfpack punting team forced its second fumble in as many weeks, with Cotra Jackson recovering the miscue that allowed Philip Rivers to come back on the field, stinging shoulder and all, and lead the Wolfpack on an eight-play drive for its first touchdown of the day. Then, in the second quarter, linebacker Manny Lawson got the fourth punt block of his career, charging untouched through the line to block the kick. Lawson had two near-misses already this season, against Wake Forest and Western Carolina, but didn't let this one slip through his arms. Wideout Richard Washington recovered the ball in the end zone for the touchdown. Last year, the Wolfpack scored seven touchdowns on special teams. The units have two scores so far this year, following the punt block and Tramain Hall's punt return for a touchdown against Western Carolina. The Wolfpack also has discovered it has quite a gem in redshirt freshman placekicker John Deraney, who booted seven of his eight kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks against Texas Tech. After having nine of his 10 kickoffs returned in the season opener against Western Carolina, Deraney had only six kicks returned in the next three games combined. He's becoming almost automatic, creating a huge plus for the Wolfpack defense. When that group is assured the opposing offense will have to start from its own 20-yard line, it doesn't give up many points. There also have been some costly mistakes in the kicking game. The sight of an Ohio State kickoff bouncing off Washington's head will replay itself endlessly, on both bloopers tapes and in the memories of diehard Wolfpackers. Golden let another one slip away against Texas Tech. Similarly, the kickoff coverage team has not been particularly good at slowing down opposing teams when they choose to return kicks. Amato said upon his hiring in Raleigh that he wants his teams to be dominant in the kicking game, and it's an area he emphasizes in practice every year. The Wolfpack is getting closer to the coach's goal, but it still has a long way to go. Offense Misses Colmer's Presence The mysterious injury that sidelined senior offensive tackle Chris Colmer for the Wolfpack's first four games finally received an official diagnosis: Parsonage Turner Syndrome. That's an uncommon ailment of the brachial plexus nerves in the shoulder. It results in the loss of strength, as well as tingling and pain, in the affected shoulder, arm and hand. There's no real treatment for the condition, which could be caused by a viral infection in the nerves, except to wait for strength to come back to the arm. That could happen at any time, doctors said, or it might not happen for weeks or months. Amato said throughout the preseason and the team's first four games that Colmer could come back any day. But the big man hardly worked out with the team at all, spending most of his practices dressed out in full gear and riding a stationary bicycle. Colmer's absence has had a big impact on the Wolfpack's running game and its pass protection. Rivers was sacked seven times through four games; that wasn't bad, but compared to the 11 sacks in 14 games given up by last year's team, it was a pretty dramatic difference. In Colmer's place, redshirt sophomore John McKeon has been a steady performer. He graded out the highest of any lineman in the Ohio State game and has not been as overwhelmed as some other offensive linemen of similar age and experience. By now, it's safe to say that McKeon's performance has been as surprising as freshman Derek Morris' has been disappointing. Sure, it was probably unrealistic to think that Morris would come in to be an immediate starter, as he and Amato suggested when the player was introduced at a press conference in January, but no one thought Morris would have yet to step onto the field in the Pack's first four games.