Defense leading the Pack through 3 games

While NC State’s offense struggles to get in a rhythm, its defense is feasting on opponents

NC State defensive back Aydan White (3) celebrates with teammates after one of his two interceptions last week against Texas Tech. (Karl B DeBlaker / AP Photo)

RALEIGH — It’s no secret where to find the heart and soul of the NC State football team. From the D-line to the D-backs, the Wolfpack’s defense is hungry to lead the nation’s 12th-ranked team.

Hard-nosed, experienced and boasting one of the best linebacker trios in the nation, NC State has a formula for success with its defense.

The Wolfpack have needed it. Outside of its game against FCS opponent Charleston Southern, NC State’s offense has struggled through the season’s first three games.

So it’s been up to the defense to carry the load, and they have more than lived up to the task.

The Wolfpack have allowed just 12.3 points per game during their 3-0 start, tied for the 16th fewest in the country. NC State also ranks seventh against the run, giving up just 68.7 yards per game and 3.0 per carry.

NC State lost two key pass rushers in Daniel Joseph and Levi Jones going into this season, and the defense struggled to get to the quarterback in its first two games.

But the Wolfpack exploded for four sacks in last week’s 27-14 win over Texas Tech, led by C.J. Clark’s two sacks against the Red Raiders.

“One of his biggest strengths as a D-linemen is his explosiveness off of the line of scrimmage,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said of Clark. “You’re starting to see that again. He’s very strong, he’s running through contact, his first sack he split a double team. I’m happy for him and happy for us because we need that. We need that pass rush from our front.”

The defense is also excelling at creating turnovers. The Wolfpack are averaging more than two interceptions per game and have forced two fumbles so far this season.

While the takeaways are the most noticeable game-changing plays, the defense is also dominating on third down, helping the Wolfpack gain valuable field position for its struggling offense.

NC State has stopped 73% of opponents’ third down attempts and forced a turnover on downs five times already this season.

Perhaps most encouraging is the depth of the Wolfpack’s defense.

With defensive back Shyheim Battle injured last week, Aydan White filled the void against Texas Tech. The cornerback had two interceptions, including one returned for an 84-yard touchdown, to earn National Defensive Player of the Week and ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors.

“We list those guys as ‘Or’ for a reason,” Doeren said. “We look at Aydan as a starter. I don’t think there’s much difference right there. Each of them have different skills and things they are better at, but we look at all of those guys as equals when it comes to the rotation they’re going to be in.”

That said, it’s still nice to get back the guys at the top of the depth chart, and the Wolfpack got that in the return of linebacker Payton Wilson.

Wilson, playing his first full game in a year and a half, led NC State with 10 tackles against Texas Tech and looked like his old self in his return to the lineup.

“He can play better, but he led us in tackles his first full game back,” Doeren said. “He can cover ground. The guy’s a tremendous athlete. (It’s) just putting another elite competitor that is very gifted back on the field.”

This weekend’s upcoming matchup against bottom-feeder UConn has all the makings of a rout, but Doeren doesn’t expect that to lessen his team’s effort.

“The good thing for us is that there’s been enough examples out there in college football this year to point to where you don’t have to talk about it,” Doeren said of the rampant upsets early this season. “It seems like every week somebody is losing a game like that.

“We’re going to try and get better. That’s what really good programs do. It doesn’t matter who you play, it’s how you play, and this started back in the preseason. Our worst enemy is us, not anyone else on our schedule, and we’re going to repeat that exact same verbiage to them throughout the week.”