Duke has been on a four-game winning streak, but N.C. State enters Saturday’s contest on the opposite end of the spectrum as the Wolfpack will look to capture their first ACC victory and put an end to a four-game losing skid.
The Wolfpack are coming off a 27-19 loss to in-state rival North Carolina and will have to overcome poor quarterback play to defeat Duke as they are tied for last in the NCAA with four touchdown passes. To make matters worse, they will also have to try to score without their main offensive threat after losing junior wide receiver Bryan Underwood to a broken collarbone.
"North Carolina State has got a lot of playmakers, and they've had a very difficult schedule, and they play people well that are not good but great, and that shows you the talent level," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
N.C. State has struggled on the offensive side of the ball this year as it averages only 14.6 points per game against ACC opponents, which is second-worst in the league.
The Wolfpack’s main source of production will come on the ground via running back Shadrach Thornton. After garnering one carry through the first three games, Thornton has averaged 17.3 carries per game and 5.0 yards per carry. The sophomore was the lone bright spot in the Wolfpack’s 49-17 loss to No. 2 Florida State, as he amassed 173 rushing yards—the most any back has managed against the Seminoles all year—and two touchdowns.
The main issue that has haunted N.C. State all season has been its quarterback play. With Mike Glennon departing for the NFL and starting quarterback Brandon Mitchell suffering a broken foot in the season opener, the Wolfpack turned to Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas as their starter. As the season wore on, the redshirt junior struggled with his accuracy, throwing eight interceptions in his first six games and did not register a touchdown pass until the fifth week against Central Michigan.
Luckily for the Wolfpack, Mitchell’s foot healed quickly, as he stepped under center for the Florida State and North Carolina contests in the last two weeks. But the senior signal-caller did not fare much better, throwing for a combined four interceptions and no touchdowns. The upside for Mitchell was his production on the ground against North Carolina, as he racked up 105 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, the first time in 37 years that an N.C. State quarterback rushed for more than 100 yards in a single game.
“We've still got to keep working those two guys. I'm not going to announce [who will start Saturday], but they are both practicing and they're both doing things well,” N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said. “They've both made mistakes and plays throughout the season. The big thing as a quarterback that we talk [about] with our guys is just managing the game.”
N.C. State’s defense also has struggled in its five conference matchups, surrendering an average of 30.8 points per game. The Wolfpack's secondary has suffered the most after losing All-American David Amerson and All-ACC honoree Earl Wolff to the NFL.
“They’ve got a young secondary. They move a lot of guys around," Duke quarterback Anthony Boone said. "They’ve got talented guys all across the board. Like I said against Virginia Tech, you’ve got to go out there and execute the gameplan and put our players in the best position to make our team win.”
While they have struggled in all other areas, special teams is one facet of the game at which N.C. State has excelled this season, led by kicker Nikilas Sade. The junior has converted 17-of-19 attempts this season and was recently named as one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, which recognizes the best kickers in the nation. The Wolfpack’s punt return game has also been above average this year, as they rank 19th in the country in yards per return.
“North Carolina State has a lot of good football players who are extremely well-coached. You see that in every phase. You see it first in their kicking game,” Cutcliffe said.
In the offseason, N.C. State ran a promotional campaign declaring, “This is our state,” in regards to its prior dominance against in-state opponents. Following the Wolfpack's loss last week, several North Carolina players gathered at midfield and taunted their rivals, leading to some physical confrontation. Although Duke won the state championship last year, the Blue Devils are adamant that the title of best in state is not on their mind.
“We’re really not getting into this ‘Whose state it is,’” running back Josh Snead said. “All we want to do is go out there and compete each week. Our next opponent is N.C. State. We’re here to play N.C. State.”