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UCLA Football Preview: Can the Bruin Defense Stop NC State's Devin Leary?
The Bruin pass defense has been suspect all season. Can they find a way to stop the Wolfpack quarterback?
Well, it looks like tonight’s Holiday Bowl game will be played unlike some of the other bowl games like the Alamo Bowl which saw Miami withdraw due to COVID.
Bruin fans might not know much about North Carolina State head coach Dave Doeren, but Doeren knows something about UCLA. That’s because, back in 1998 and 1999, he was a graduate assistant at Southern Cal under Paul Hackett.
After serving as the defensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator at Wisconsin from 2006 to 2010, Doeren was hired by Northern Illinois. In two seasons with the Huskies, he went 11-3 in 2011 and 12-1 in 2012. After the 2012 season, Doeren was hired by North Carolina State. After one sub-.500 rebuilding year, Doeren has led the Wolfpack to winning records in seven of the last eight seasons. A win tonight will give him his first 10-win season with NC State.
Offensive coordinator Tim Beck served in the same position with Nebraska, Ohio State and Texas before joining the Wolfpack in 2020. His offense put up some of the best numbers in school history last season.
Redshirt sophomore Devin Leary will lead the Wolfpack on the field. The Wolfpack offense looks to be a pass-heavy attack. This season, Leary had one 400-yard passing game as well as five games over 300 yards passing. He was held under 240 yards just twice.
How good was Leary this season? He broke Philip Rivers’ school record for touchdowns in a season by throwing for 35 this year. Rivers’ previous mark was 34 in 2003.
That could spell trouble for a UCLA team which had trouble defending the pass all season, especially considering that UCLA’s leading tackler, defensive back Qwuantrezz Knight, will miss tonight’s game.
It’s awfully hard for a quarterback to throw for as many yards as Leary has this season without having some quality receivers. In fact, the Wolfpack passing game is ranked fifth in all of FBS. That could make it a very long night for Bruin fans.
Leary’s favorite two targets look to be graduate receiver Thayer Thomas and redshirt senior Emela Emezie. Thomas has scored eight touchdowns this season, moving him into 3rd place in school history with 20 over his career. Emezie, on the other hand, broke the school record for career receptions this year.
While Thomas and Emezie are clearly his favorite targets, Leary has spread the ball around to a total of 17 different receivers over the course of the season. Nine different receivers had double-digit catch totals in 2021, including five wide receivers, two running backs and two tight ends. The Wolfpack’s 35 passing touchdowns have been distributed to nine different players.
Devin Carter is Leary’s third favorite target. While he only has 31 receptions this season, his average yards per catch is 17.9, which is the highest on the team. While he only has about half the number of receptions that Emezie has, he has managed to find the end zone six times which ties Emezie for the second most touchdown receptions on the team.
The concern here isn’t just about those three players. Nine different Wolfpack receivers are averaging more than ten yards per reception. In other words, Bruin fans should probably be rightfully scared that Leary is going to have a field day tonight.
While the passing game appears to be prolific, it turns out that NC State only passes the ball 54.3% of the time. That means that 45.7% of their plays are running plays. That’s a higher percentage than you might expect from a team which seems to rely on the pass.
While the Wolfpack might like to throw the ball a lot, NC State has a running back tandem in Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person that UCLA cannot overlook either. The duo has almost the same number of carries on the season and they are both averaging almost the same number of yards per carry. Knight is averaging 5.4 ypc while Person gains an average of 4.7 ypc. That’s a testament to a relatively young offensive line that features three underclassmen along with redshirt junior Bryson Speas at right tackle and graduate student Grant Gibson at center.
Clearly, the Bruin defense has their work cut out for them.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson previously worked in the same role at West Virginia. Gibson is considered one of the top recruiters in the country. Street & Smith named him one of the hottest recruiters in the country in 2018. He is able to recruit on both sides of the ball. At Michigan, he recruited and signed future Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Denard Robinson.
Not surprisingly, NC State also presents a formidable defense.
The Wolfpack has held opponents to an average of 124 yards rushing per game this season. NC State is 18th in the country in scoring defense, 24th in total defense, 25th in rushing defense and 33rd in passing defense.
Based on the team depth chart, it looks like NC State will play a 3-3-5 base defense.
Sophomore middle linebacker Drake Thomas, who happens to be the younger brother of receiver Thayer Thomas, leads the team in tackles with 100. The younger Thomas brother is also a team captain. He leads the team with 13.5 tackles for loss and is tied for the team lead in sacks with six. If that’s not enough, he also leads the team with three interceptions. Considering all that, it makes sense that the defense is essentially centered around him.
Overall, the Wolfpack defense could present a challenge to the Bruin offense. Ultimately, this game could come down to how effective UCLA is running the ball. If NC State stops the Bruin running game, it could force Chip Kelly to go to the air more than he might like and that could spell trouble for the Bruins.
While the teams have similar records, I think the similarity ends there. Looking at the what the Wolfpack has accomplished this season sure makes it look like this game will be problematic for Chip Kelly and the Bruins.
I fully expect Devin Leary to further expose an already suspect UCLA defense, especially with Bruin corner Qwuantrezz Knight out.
On the other side of the ball, UCLA will need to find a way to run the ball effectively in order to keep up with the Wolfpack on the scoreboard. If NC State shuts down the Bruin rushing attack, tonight’s game could resemble the Arizona State and Utah games.