Wolfpack hit the road against SEC foe

NC State travels to Mississippi State on Saturday looking to build off its opening win

The NC State defense posted a shutout in a season-opening win over South Florida, but the Wolfpack will have their hands full with Mississippi State and coach Mike Leach's Air Raid offense on Saturday in Starkville. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — NC State took care of business with a 45-0 shutout of South Florida last Thursday to help salvage at least a sliver of pride for the ACC in what was an overall dismal start to the 2021 football season for the conference.

This week, the Wolfpack don’t just have a chance to give the ACC an even bigger boost, it can also help its own cause considerably by going on the road against an SEC opponent and beating Mississippi State.

“To play against a coach like Mike Leach, who has done nothing but win everywhere he’s coached, in a stadium that has — I’ve been reading about it all day — just the fanfare, the noise, the whole thing,” State coach Dave Doeren said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. “It’s going to be an awesome opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that will undoubtedly be discussed at length between now and Saturday’s kickoff in Starkville. And not just among the Wolfpack, who are looking for their first regular season victory against an SEC foe since beating a South Carolina team that went winless in 1999. As a league, the ACC went 0 for 3 in head-to-head matchups against the nation’s top conference last week.

“I don’t really have to say a lot with that,” Doeren said of the SEC’s traditional dominance of the ACC, a subject he brought up briefly at his team’s meeting on Sunday. “We are playing another Power 5 team from a conference that gets a lot of notoriety. It’s an opportunity for us to continue to earn respect.

“Obviously playing on the road against a team like that from their league, to find a way to win that game, it’s good for your team. It’s good for your program. Our guys are aware that we are playing an SEC team. It won’t be something I talk about five days in a row, I can tell you that. But it is something that is worth a conversation.”

State let its play do the talking for it on Thursday with an impressive opening-night performance at Carter-Finley Stadium.

Ricky Person scored three touchdowns and combined with Zonovan Knight to become the first Wolfpack duo since 2015 to rush for more than 100 yards in the same game, while quarterback Devin Leary threw for 232 yards and a pair of scores in his return from a broken leg last October.

Defensively, Drake Thomas, Tanner Ingle and Florida State transfer Cyrus Fagan all collected interceptions to help a vastly improved unit keep the opposition off the scoreboard and get 2021 off to a flying start.

More importantly, State committed only three penalties, didn’t turn the ball over and came out of the game injury-free. Based heavily on its performance against USF, the Wolfpack have opened as a 2½-point favorite for this week’s showdown against Mississippi State.

“I don’t know about what message we sent, but we tried to put on display what our brand of football is,” said linebacker Thomas, who also led the team with eight tackles. “We’re trying to play hard, fast, tough and disciplined. I think we did that (Thursday). It was a good start.”

As impressive as State’s performance against the Bulls might have been, Doeren and his players understand it was only a dress rehearsal for the first real test to come.

They’re not taking Mississippi State lightly, even after it had to rally from 20 points down in the final 12 minutes to avoid an upset at the hands of Louisiana Tech in its opening game on Saturday.

According to Doeren, the late comeback that produced a 35-34 win only shows how dangerous the Bulldogs can be when Leach’s pass-happy Air Raid offense starts gaining momentum and clicks into high gear.

Mississippi State rushed for only 65 yards against Louisiana Tech while quarterback Will Rogers threw the ball 47 times, completing 39 for 370 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.

“It’s really like playing third down on first and second down in a lot of ways,” the State coach said. “(Leach’s) passing game and playbook is the same on first down, second down and third down, with the exception of short yardage. They’re very good at what they do.

“We have to be able to tackle in space. As a defensive coach, you’ve got to have answers and you can’t be one-dimensional. You have to be able to do a lot of different things against him because if you sit in one thing, he can just pick you apart.”

Other than the style of play and the conferences they represent, Doeren said there are a lot of similarities between the Wolfpack and Bulldogs.

“I have great respect for Mississippi State’s program, and I have for a long time,” he said. “They are a blue-collar, tough group. They’re very similar, passionate, tough. I like what they are about. I’ve always respected how they play.”