Scouting report: UCLA football vs. NC State
Dec. 22, 2021 1:55 p.m.
UCLA football (8-4, 6-3 Pac-12) is back in the postseason for the first time in four years as it heads to San Diego to take on No. 18 North Carolina State (9-3, 6-2 ACC) in the Holiday Bowl on Tuesday. The contest will mark the first-ever football game played in Petco Park – the home of MLB’s San Diego Padres. Here is this week’s scouting report from assistant Sports editor Sam Settleman – who thinks football on a Tuesday is sacrilegious.
NC State’s offense
Offensive scheme: Spread
Run-pass percentage: 54.4% pass, 45.6% run
Strength: Wide receiver corps
Weakness: Run game
X-factor: QB Devin Leary
When Tim Beck came to NC State from Texas, he took over an offense that ranked 107th in the nation in scoring.
But in his second year with the Wolfpack, the offensive coordinator has increased that mark all the way to 29th, making NC State’s offense one of the top-scoring units in the country.
The first task for Beck upon arriving in Raleigh was developing quarterback Devin Leary. Beck spent nine years coaching quarterbacks at Nebraska, Ohio State and Texas before joining NC State, so it’s no shock that Leary quickly became one of the top passers in the ACC.
The now-redshirt sophomore quarterback entered this season on the heels of a broken fibula that derailed a 4-1 start to the campaign for the Wolfpack in 2020. This season, however, Leary has already set the single-season school record for touchdown passes with 35 – a mark that is tied for ninth in the nation.
With 3,433 passing yards and only five interceptions, Leary boasts the third-best touchdown to interception ratio of any quarterback in the country with over 3,000 passing yards – slotting in behind Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and Ohio State quarterback and Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud. Put simply, Leary has been one of the most efficient signal-callers in the nation this year.
Leary will rarely take off with the rock but his arm is enough of a weapon itself. His accuracy – particularly on deep balls outside the hashes – stands out, and he has the ability to make pinpoint passes on the move as well.
But the signal-caller can also thank his trio of receivers for the breakout year. Wide receivers Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter lead the way for the Wolfpack with 500-plus receiving yards apiece.
Emezie and Carter man the outside of the field while the elusive Thayer Thomas primarily lines up in the slot. With a 6-foot-3, 212-pound frame, Emezie is Leary’s go-to weapon. He won’t burn you down the field, but the senior wide receiver is a big target who is particularly strong at the point of attack, making him lethal on jump balls.
Carter is slightly bigger at 6 feet, 3 inches and 216 pounds, giving Leary yet another outside target who can make contested catches.
When the deep threats are locked up, Thayer Thomas is Leary’s safety blanket underneath, leading NC State with eight touchdowns to his name in 2021.
UCLA’s passing defense has been much improved as of late, notably holding California to just 125 yards through the air to close out the regular season Nov. 27. However, the blue and gold still rank 111th in the country in passing yards allowed per game.
The Bruins’ defensive backs will be outmatched in one-on-one matchups, with senior defensive back Quentin Lake – who’s had an All-Pac-12-caliber season at safety – likely set to play a huge role in slowing down the Wolfpack.
If NC State’s offense has one weakness, it’s the run game.
Running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. make up the one-two punch for the Wolfpack, but neither are particularly game-changing on the ground. Person, who declared for the NFL Draft last month, is a physical, downhill runner who can carry defenders for extra yardage, though his longest run of the season is a mere 32 yards.
Knight boasts similar rushing numbers to Person, but his biggest impact for NC State has been in the return game. Ranking second in the country in kickoff return average, Knight had two straight games with a kickoff return touchdown late in the season, including a matchup with Wake Forest in which he tallied 194 yards on three returns.
That being said, Knight is still contemplating whether or not to enter the 2022 NFL Draft and could sit out the Holiday Bowl should he choose to declare.
But it won’t be the running backs UCLA will have to worry about Tuesday. The Wolfpack’s trio of receivers coupled with the precision of Leary will almost certainly carve up the Bruins’ defense.
Whether or not UCLA’s offense can keep up is the question.
NC State’s defense
Defensive scheme: Nickel 3-3-5
Strength: Linebacker corps
Weakness: Quarterback containment
X-factor: LB Drake Thomas
Dorian Thompson-Robinson could be suiting up in the blue and gold for the final time Tuesday.
And the cards are set up for a memorable farewell for the senior quarterback.
After I correctly predicted that Thompson-Robinson would break the 100-yard mark on the ground for the first time all season against Cal, I’m once again expecting big numbers on the ground from the signal-caller. Thompson-Robinson has started to find his groove running the ball, tallying seven rushing touchdowns in his last six games.
Conveniently, containing quarterbacks on the ground is one of the few areas in which the Wolfpack struggle. In its win over North Carolina to close out the regular season, NC State gave up 98 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns to Tar Heel quarterback Sam Howell. The Wolfpack have conceded at least 60 yards on the ground to opposing quarterbacks in five games this season.
But while Thompson-Robinson will likely have his way running the ball, the quarterback won’t find the same success through the air. The Wolfpack rank 31st in the country in passing yards allowed per game despite playing in a conference with a bevy of high-octane passing offenses.
NC State has also tacked on 15 interceptions on the year, tied for 10th in the nation. One reason for this is the fact that Wolfpack have five defensive backs on the field in their base formation.
The nickel 3-3-5 scheme demands a lot of versatility out of its linebackers, who have to be effective in the pass rush, against the run and in pass coverage. Luckily for NC State, it has linebackers who can do all three. Drake Thomas – the brother of Thayer Thomas – headlines the linebacker corps with a team-leading 99 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss to go along with six sacks, tied for the most on the team.
Not only does Drake Thomas wrap up in the run game and wreak havoc in the backfield, but he also leads his team in interceptions with three.
The Wolfpack often generate pressure in creative ways out of the 3-3-5, bringing heat out of the nickel or from the safeties or using stunts inside to confuse the offensive line. Linebacker Levi Jones leads the team in quarterback hurries with 12 while Tyler Baker-Williams has picked up eight quarterback hurries from the nickel spot.
One of the safeties that are often tasked with rushing the quarterback is Tanner Ingle. Nicknamed the ‘Tasmanian Devil,’ Ingle plays downhill with speed and is a hard hitter, getting ejected for targeting on three separate occasions in 2020. But Ingle can also hold his own in pass coverage.
With a strong group of linebackers and physical players in the secondary, NC State is particularly adept against the run. Ranking 24th in the country in rushing defense, the Wolfpack give up 124.0 yards per game on the ground and have only allowed nine rushing touchdowns on the year, a mark that is tied for seventh in the nation.
But that ranking has proven to be slightly misleading as of late, considering the Wolfpack just gave up 297 rushing yards to a UNC rushing offense that posts similar numbers on the ground as UCLA. The Tar Heels routinely opened up big holes up front, with their top two running backs posting 8.3 and 9.8 yards per carry, respectively, in the contest.
UCLA will need to establish the run early because odds are it does not want to engage in a shootout with the high-flying NC State offense.
The Wolfpack are a really solid football team on all fronts with few glaring weaknesses, and the Bruins will need to be at their best to pull out a win. But with Gus Johnson on the call Tuesday, anything is possible.