While the overall record was nothing to write home about, the NC State offense did seem to find itself during the final third of the season. Minus the debacle against Virginia, the Pack averaged 37 points per game in wins over Wake Forest and Boston College and losses at Clemson and UNC. In the previous five games against FBS opponents NC State had averaged just 21 points per game.
The Wolfpack's offensive success, particularly in the final three games of the regular season, was two-pronged. State was able to run the football and in those three games, put up 135 yards on the ground per contest. While not gaudy, that kind of rushing production has usually spelled success for NC State and it's a number the Pack should be shooting for against Vanderbilt.
With the potential for rainy, messy conditions on Monday, State has to get everything they can out of their rushing attack to keep the pressure off of QB Mike Glennon. The emergence of freshman RB Shadrach Thornton was a huge boost to NC State and Dana Bible will be hoping he takes another step forward. Tony Creecy has been slowed by turf toe for weeks but he should be as healthy as he's been in quite some time. The success of these two will have a huge impact on the Wolfpack's ability to move the ball.
The other factor that really worked in State's favor in the month of November was ball control. The Pack limited turnovers and that helped them sustain drives. The Pack had three fumbles and two interceptions in the final three games and if State can get out of Nashville with just a turnover or two then they should be in pretty good shape.
TAKING WHAT VANDERBILT GIVES
There's no doubt, Vanderbilt will be one of the toughest defenses NC State has faced all year. The Commodores are 18th nationally in total defense, 14th in scoring defense, 5th in pass efficiency defense and 6th in tackles for loss. That all adds up to a pretty tall task for an NC State team facing what equates to a Vanderbilt home game in less than ideal conditions.
Unfortunately for NC State, what has turned out to be the main weakness for Vandy in their losses also happens to be a weakness for the Pack. In their four losses, the Commodores gave up nearly 257 yards per game on the ground.
Since the loss to Florida, Vanderbilt has exploded defensively- averaging nearly 10 tackles for loss per game. That number would easily make them the nation's best at making plays behind the line of scrimmage.
The Pack likes to throw the ball. It's what their offense is built on so they have to be successful with it or they'll lose. This means protecting Glennon and limiting negative plays. If Vanderbilt has another double digit tackle-for-loss game against the Pack then State has virtually no shot at winning.
You have to believe that you'll get one of two teams on Monday. There will be the NC State team that is completely disjointed after losing its head coach or a team that comes together and rallies behind interim head coach Dana Bible to win one final game for Tom O'Brien.
If the Wolfpack isn't focused, Monday could be disastrous for State. Unforced and mental errors have defined the Pack in several of their losses so if they're distracted, it could ultimately prove to be a long day.
The Pack has to make sure they do the little things and if they do, they have the talent to leave Nashville with a win. They must avoid pre-snap penalties. The receivers and running backs have to catch the ball. The offense simply cannot withstand another multiple-drop game and the offensive line cannot have blown assignments while blocking. This has dogged them in the past and Vandy will have a field day if the Pack's offensive line isn't dialed in.
NC State Defense vs. Vanderbilt Offense
NC State's defense has been solid this season against the run, and they are going to have to be the same versus Vanderbilt.
The Commodores enter averaging 171 yards per game rushing, and senior tailback Zac Stacy leads the way. The 5'9 speedster has totaled 1,034 yards and nine scores this season, and he is coming off a 180-yard, two-touchdown performance in the regular season finale against Wake Forest.
With that being said, State didn't handle the ground game well in their last outing, as the Pack allowed BC tailback Deuce Finch to rush for 144 yards and a score in the Pack's 27-10 win.
Vanderbilt is a team that prefers to run the football. Starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packer Aaron Rodgers, has attempted more than 30 passes just three times this season... Vanderbilt lost two of those three games.
State must be able to stuff the run if they are going to have any sort of success defensively against the Commodores.
GET OFF THE FIELD
If there has been one major positive for NC State's defense this season it has to be the Pack's ability to get off the field consistently on third down.
This year, NC State is second nationally on third downs, yielding conversions at just a 27.2% rate. State has routinely been able to put opposing offenses in situations where when they had to make a play on third down, they would come up short.
Converting thirds down has been an issues for Vanderbilt's offense. VU is 100th nationally in third-down conversions, as they are picking up first downs just 34.5% of the time.
According to the numbers, this should be an area where State's defense can have success. Now, what they must do is put Vanderbilt in third-down situations. If the Pack can be successful on first and second down, it should be a good day for their defense because they have thrived on third downs this year while Vanderbilt has struggled.
If NC State is going to have any chance of upsetting Vanderbilt, they must start fast. The Music City Bowl is played in Nashville, so the crowd is expected to heavily favor the Commodores.
The Wolfpack must come out and set the tone early, and that begins with the defense. A unit that has at times played very well, but also had some issues, State's defense must seize control of this game right away.
NC State hasn't won many games this year when they fell behind early. Now, they have rallied to make those games competitive, but they've often dug too big of a hole to come back for the win. They can't afford to allow Vanderbilt to take a huge lead early.
The Commodores enter with a lot of confidence. If NC State wants to win this game they must establish right away that they are in Nashville looking to win, not just show up.