After Clemson’s win at Louisville last Saturday, the scene in the ACC shifts to Tallahassee, as Florida State hosts NC State in the league’s top game for Week 4. The Seminoles need a win to keep pace with the Tigers in the battle for the Atlantic Division, while the Wolfpack hope to continue the momentum from their last two games after losing to South Carolina in the opener.
Due to Hurricane Irma, the Seminoles had to cancel a contest against ULM and a matchup against Miami was rescheduled for Oct. 7. Due to those schedule alterations, this is Florida State’s first matchup since the season opener versus Alabama in Atlanta. The extra time to prepare wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for the Seminoles. With quarterback Deondre Francois suffering a season-ending leg injury against Alabama, some extra reps and practice snaps may help true freshman James Blackman in his transition to the starting role. Although Francois is a huge loss, Florida State’s defense and rushing attack is good enough to challenge Clemson for the Atlantic title. But with a trip to Death Valley and matchups against Louisville and Miami remaining, the Seminoles don’t have much room for error.
NC State opened 2017 as a sleeper team to watch on the national radar and ACC title contention. However, the Wolfpack hit a speed bump in Week 1. Despite outgaining South Carolina 504 to 246, NC State fell 35-28 to the Gamecocks in Charlotte. Coach Dave Doeren’s team rebounded with victories against Marshall and Furman, but the schedule gets significantly tougher starting this Saturday. After the Florida State matchup, NC State hosts Syracuse and Louisville, followed by road trips to Pitt and Notre Dame, along with a home date against Clemson on Nov. 4.
Florida State leads the series 26-11 against NC State. The Seminoles have won five out of the last six meetings versus the Wolfpack. Last year’s game was decided by just four points (24-20).
NC State at Florida State
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ABC/ESPN2
Spread: Florida State -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Florida State QB James Blackman
All eyes on this matchup will be focused on freshman quarterback James Blackman. Deondre Francois’ injury leaves big shoes to fill under center in Tallahassee. How will the freshman perform in his first start? Coach Jimbo Fisher has expressed a lot of confidence in Blackman, but he’s yet to attempt a pass in a game and did not enroll in the spring to compete for the backup job. Needless to say, there’s a lot of pressure on Blackman’s shoulders this week.
While it’s tough to evaluate a quarterback based upon offseason reps or high school film, Blackman seems to have a strong arm and has no trouble moving around the pocket or using his legs to create plays. The freshman’s mobility could be a valuable asset against NC State, as the Wolfpack’s defensive front is one of the best in the nation.
Blackman doesn’t need to throw for 300 yards or four touchdowns in order for Florida State to win. Instead, the freshman just needs to get comfortable in game action, make smart decisions and don’t turn the ball over. With a strong supporting cast and defense in place, Blackman can win this game by just being efficient. Blackman’s development is critical for the Seminoles’ hopes of winning the Atlantic Division. This game will provide the first glimpse of how far along he is in his development.
2. Florida State’s Ground Game Against NC State’s Rush Defense
Florida State’s offensive line was the team’s biggest concern entering the 2017 season. With only one game of tape to go by (and a brutal matchup against Alabama), it’s hard to get an accurate read on this group. However, this unit showed promise and looks poised to take a step forward over the course of the year.
Even if Florida State’s offensive line has improved, it won’t face an easy matchup this Saturday. NC State’s defensive front is among the best in the nation and has generated six sacks, 19 tackles for a loss and ranks third in the ACC against the run. End Bradley Chubb was a first-team All-American by Athlon Sports this preseason, but he’s not the only force up front for Doeren. Fellow ends Kentavius Street and Darian Roseboro are capable of getting to the quarterback, with tackles B.J. Hill and Justin Jones clogging the interior of the line. NC State has faced 93 rushing attempts through the first three games and has limited opponents to just 2.9 yards per rush.
With Blackman making his first start, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Florida State establish the run to take some pressure off the young quarterback. The Seminoles have plenty of options in the backfield, as true freshman Cam Akers (30 yards against Alabama) and Jacques Patrick are likely to share carries.
In last year’s matchup, NC State held Florida State to just 63 yards on 24 attempts, and Dalvin Cook was limited to 3.6 yards per carry. Will the Wolfpack have similar success on Saturday? Or can Florida State’s offensive line open up more lanes for Akers and Patrick, helping to make Blackman’s debut a little easier?
3. NC State’s Passing Attack and Jaylen Samuels
Louisville’s Lamar Jackson is the ACC’s best quarterback, but NC State’s Ryan Finley is also off to a strong start this season. The junior ranks second among league passers by averaging 329 passing yards per game and has tossed six touchdowns to zero interceptions. Additionally, Finley’s 75.6 completion percentage ranks No. 1 among ACC quarterbacks.
Helping Finley get off to a fast start has been a standout offensive line, along with an emerging group of receivers. Kelvin Harmon (24 catches) and Stephen Louis (16) are two playmakers poised for a big season on the outside. But Finley’s favorite target is all-purpose threat Jaylen Samuels. The senior has caught 26 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 38 yards and three scores on eight attempts. Samuels needs to have 10-15 touches in order for NC State to have a shot at the upset. After losing Matt Dayes to the NFL, Nyheim Hines (202 yards) and Reggie Gallaspy (110) have picked up the slack on the ground.
NC State’s offense is averaging 38 points per game, but this unit has yet to be challenged by a defense of Florida State’s caliber. This unit is among the best in the nation, featuring standouts at all three levels. Safety Derwin James is in the mix for the best defensive player in college football, Josh Sweat and Brian Burns are a dynamic pair off the edge, and linebacker Matthew Thomas is poised to push for All-ACC honors.
In the opener versus Alabama, Florida State allowed only 4.5 yards per play and 269 total yards. However, 53 of the Crimson Tide’s 96 passing yards came on one play, and 54 of 173 rushing yards came on two plays. Can NC State’s offense protect Finley and allow him time to spread the ball to his playmakers? Or will the Seminoles dominate up front, contain Samuels and prevent the Wolfpack from matching the success from their first three games?
A two-touchdown spread seems too high in this game. Florida State is the better team, but it’s hard to get a read on the offense in Blackman’s first appearance. Look for the Seminoles to lean heavily on the ground game and defense, with Blackman making a few timely plays. NC State’s defense will keep this game close into the fourth quarter, but it’s hard to see the Wolfpack offense making enough plays against Florida State’s defense to pull off the upset.