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Behind Enemy Bylines

This week, The Tiger News’ Sports section sat down with Andrew Schnittker, the sports editor of The Technician, North Carolina State University’s student newspaper. He gave us some questions and we fired some right back to get down to the heart of what this matchup of ACC Atlantic powerhouses was all about.

Andrew Schnittker (AS): NC State head coach Dave Doeren called the past two games between these two teams “dogfights”. Why do you think that’s been the case?
The Tiger Sports (TS): Both games have been back-and-forth affairs won or lost in the final moments by exactly seven points (24-17 in 2016 and 38-31 in 2017). Two years ago, NC State was starting to look like a team on the rise. They played the number one team on the road and lost in overtime. Not too shabby. Last year, NC State was ranked, playing at home and up against a Clemson secondary ravaged by injuries (Ray-Ray McCloud, one of our wide receivers, had to play cornerback when they needed six defensive backs on the field). Kelly Bryant couldn’t get much yardage on downfield throws but excelled just enough with short ones and on the ground to narrowly escape Raleigh with a 38-31 win sealed by a K’Von Wallace interception in the fourth quarter. 
AS: For NC State (and probably every team in the Atlantic), Clemson is the top target, the team to beat if you want to move up and have a chance to play in Charlotte in December. What is Clemson’s perception of NC State?
TS: The coaches never count a team out. Not even Florida State who is having their worst season in 35 years. That being said, NC State is the only ranked team right now in the entirety of the ACC despite having four teams ranked to start the year. Since the Wolfpack have played hard in both stadiums the last few years, I know that no one inside the huddle is taking anything for granted against Dave Doeren’s squad.  
AS: The Tigers had a quarterback controversy earlier in the season. How did that impact the team, and what can we expect to see from Trevor Lawrence?
TS: I don’t think it impacted the team as much as the media thinks it did. Everyone said their piece, but in the end, Coach Swinney decided to move forward with a quarterback that forces teams to respect passing past the line of scrimmage instead of the proven, scramble-prone veteran. Lawrence has shown that he takes a little time to warm up during the games. That could be a byproduct of being a backup for the first four games of the season, but he doesn’t look like he’s truly comfortable until his third drive. After that, watch out. He has completed 69 percent of his 100 passing attempts for 868 yards and 11 touchdowns to only two interceptions. He’s efficient and gives the running game a chance to thrive. 
AS: Who are some other key players for Clemson?
TS: Sophomore running back Travis Etienne will be important for Clemson’s offense all day. He would actually lead all Power-5 running backs in yards per carry if not for his own teammate, freshman Lyn-J Dixon.  Lawrence likely won’t be able to carry the offense just yet and Etienne will be crucial to taking the pressure off. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt had a tough game against Syracuse a few weeks ago and needs to keep the NC State pass rush at bay and give Lawrence as much time to throw as he can. The last time Lawrence tried to escape serious pressure he wound up getting knocked out of the game. We don’t want to see that happen again.  
AS: Who are some underrated players?
TS: Somehow teams are still sleeping on freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross. Ross leads the team in yards per catch this year at a whopping 20.1. Tee Higgins looked like the best overall receiver for Clemson this year, but Ross has been the best deep threat and an even more elusive player having already evaded double-digit tackles in far fewer snaps. Safety K’Von Wallace also doesn’t enough credit for what he does. Wallace forced the crucial fumble at the end of the Texas A&M game that gave the Tigers back the ball late in the fourth quarter. He has a good nose for the football and plays as physical as most NFL-caliber safeties.
AS: How do the Tigers match up with NC State, particularly Ryan Finley and his receivers?
TS: Before the bye week, Clemson played Wake Forest and managed to stop talented receiver Greg Dortch and the rest of the Demon Deacon offense. So much so that they did not record a single touchdown while Clemson piled on nine of their own. They did that by scheming a cornerback and OLB Isaiah Simmons on him on just about every play. Dortch averaged nine receptions in the five games prior to playing Clemson when he was held to just three for 37 yards. NC State has done a much better job distributing the ball as top receiver Kelvin Harmon outpaces Jakobi Meyers in receptions by just three, albeit with 215 more yards and an extra touchdown. Clemson’s top corners Trayvon Mullen and Aj Terrell are not freshmen anymore and have done a good job locking up the boundaries. Finley is not known specifically for being a mobile quarterback, but he has gouged Clemson before while scrambling. If the receivers draw the defense back, the Tigers might want to leave a defender over the middle to cover all their bases.    
AS: What is your final prediction for this game?
TS: I predict Clemson goes up early, then the Wolfpack fight back, but loses to a last-second field goal.
Final score: NC State 28, Clemson 31.
The Tiger Sports (TS): Do you think QB Ryan Finley has improved in his senior year? If so, in what ways and how?
Andrew Schnittker (AS): I think Finley has improved every year he’s been here, including this one. He’s better at making plays outside the pocket and being creative when the play breaks down. One example was in the last game against BC when the pocket collapsed and he rolled to his right and hit Kelvin Harmon on the sideline on third and long. Finley has also really started to trust his deep ball more and has added an ability to stretch the field, especially when he can find Harmon deep. Expect him to try and test the Tigers’ secondary with a few deep shots Saturday. 
TS: Bradley Chubb was a force off the edge on defense last year. Who are the key guys on that side of the ball who could give Clemson problems this year?
AS: So it’s funny, NC State lost all that NFL talent on defense from last year, but has been better in just about every defensive metric this year. The big guy to watch is Germaine Pratt at linebacker. A converted safety, he’s having an incredible year as the quarterback of the Pack’s defense. He flashed some big-play ability last year with two defensive touchdowns, including a pick six off Lamar Jackson, but he’s doing it on a consistent basis this year. He leads the ACC in tackles, and had a key sack and forced fumble in the win over Boston College. In a much-improved secondary, you’ve got some solid if unspectacular contributors in corner Nick McCloud and safety Jarius Morehead. A rebuilt defensive line is led by two seniors in Darian Roseboro and tackle Eurndraus Bryant, and has an ability to rotate several strong options.
TS: Do you think the Wolfpack offensive line will be able to give Finley enough time in the pocket against the Tiger defensive line?
AS: That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Clemson’s secondary is a weak point, and if Finley has time to get the ball out, he and the Pack’s receivers will be able to exploit that. I think this will be a fun battle to watch. NC State had a pair of players named to the midseason Pro Football Focus All-American team in guard Terrone Prescod and center Garrett Bradbury. Left tackle Tyler Jones has done an excellent job protecting Finley’s blindside the past two years. This is one of the best offensive lines in the country, and I think they’ll give Finley a chance. 
TS: How do you think NC State will try to exploit Clemson’s defensive scheme?
AS: I know Clemson likes to bring an aggressive blitz and flood the line of scrimmage. I think the Pack will try to exploit this with short, quick passes. Finley has a great quick release, and might be the best short to intermediate passer in college football. If the Pack can put the ball in its talented receivers’ hands in space, they have the ability to make guys miss. If the O-Line can give Finley a few chance to find his receivers, Harmon in particular, down the field, the Pack will be well on its way to a successful day. As a bonus, expect at least one “how on earth did he catch that” grab from Harmon. The guy has magnets for hands. 
TS: Score prediction? 
AS: This is the year. Finley and NC State’s other seniors understand how much a win here would mean to their legacy, and they want it. This group has plenty of experience to draw on from how well they’ve played Clemson in each of the past two years. We very easily could be talking about a two-game win streak for the Wolfpack in this series. One underrated consideration is that Trevor Lawrence hasn’t really played in a “big game” yet. He’s extremely talented, no doubt, but if this one gets into a shootout, give me the sixth-year guy on his way to the NFL.
Final Score: NC State 30, Clemson 27.
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