We asked Backing The Pack writer Steven Muma for some insight, then answered his questions in return.
1. NC State beat Louisville and ranked as high as No. 14 after starting the season 6-1, but lost three of its last five games. Is this team actually... good? Like No. 24 in the nation good?
Muma: think so, but there have been streaks of inconsistency within games that would compel me to think otherwise. Three of this team's four losses were one-possession games that could have gone either way (and in a couple cases SHOULD have gone NC State's way) so they were competitive with nearly every team on the schedule, Clemson included.
2. How will the Wolfpack beat you? With their offense? Defense? Special teams? What clicked in their eight wins?
Muma: NC State does not have a place kicker. Let us never discuss this aspect of football again. Who knows what might have happened this season without the worst placekicking personnel in the history of the earth. (This may be a slight exaggeration.)
The Wolfpack are driven more by their offense, which has a lot of big-play threats and an excellent quarterback leading the way. NC State upgraded it receiving corps considerably over the last few years and it's really paying off now. Plus the offense has Jaylen Samuels, and Jaylen Samuels is good at basically all the football things.
The defense has been inconsistent, primarily thanks to a green secondary that has been prone to some critical mistakes. I don't think State will be winning the game with that side of the ball, but I'm good with being wrong about that.
3. Bradley Chubb is great. Yes, we know that. But I'm seeing Darian Roseboro is one of the nation's best defensive linemen. What makes these two so good and how dangerous is this defensive line? (Has the No. 28 rushing defense... Only 132.2 ground yards given up per game!?!)
Muma: Bradley Chubb is awesome. When you can mix great talent with a lot of experience, it's impressive what can happen. He can create havoc in a number of ways, and he plays hard all the time. Roseboro is also extremely talented, but this defensive line is so deep, Roseboro has been like the No. 3 DE in the rotation. That will definitely change next season.
It's the veteran depth that makes the unit so good, rather than a lot of great individual talent (Chubb aside). Everybody up front knows their job and executes well, and they have the luxury of rotating a lot of guys so that they don't wear down too much.
*Editor’s note: Chubb likely won’t play in the Sun Bowl, so he doesn’t hurt his draft stock. He was seen doing “speed drills” while the rest of his team practiced on Wednesday.
4. What other impact players are on this defense? I saw the passing defense ranks No. 92, which is still 27 spots better than ASU's...
Muma: Linebacker Jerod Fernandez leads the team in tackles with 93 and safety Shawn Boone leads the way with three interceptions. Both have had nice seasons, but no doubt NC State's back seven has been picked on by opposing quarterbacks.
Problem there starts at corner, where on one side a converted wide receiver starts, and on the other, a guy who has been banged up this year. It's far from an ideal situation, and unlike the defensive line, there is not a lot of depth here.
5. Equipped with a 3,000-yard passer in Ryan Finley and an 1,000-yard rusher in Nyheim Hines, it looks like a pretty balanced offense. Do the Wolfpack lean more towards run or pass? What type of style offense would you call this?
Muma: Early in head coach Dave Doeren's tenure, NC State relied more on a physical rushing attack. Since then, the wide receiver spot has gotten a lot better, and the Wolfpack added Finley, who is easily the best passer of the Doeren era. That's led NC State to let Finley direct a bit more, with mostly positive results. He's an excellent decision-maker.
But the beauty of this offense is that it can create big plays in a bunch of ways. NC State doesn't live in the shotgun formation, and its approach to running the ball is somewhat ... old-fashioned, I guess?
6. So will this Jaylen Samuels guy pick a position? He leads all RBs and WRs with 19 touchdowns (and second place is not even close). Why is he so good at two positions and how does he score so often?
Muma: Samuels has been asked to do so much it's hard to figure out how he's made it work out. He's been an important part of the passing game for years, but at times he's also been forced into a primary back role thanks to injuries. Also he's not a bad passer.
He has the right combination of strength and modest stature that I think translates well to multiple roles, and he's a smart player. NC State's coaches generally do a good job of playing to his strengths--he's not a burner by any means, but put him in some space and he'll do damage.
7. Score prediction.
Muma: I never know what to expect during bowl season, but I'm gonna guess we'll see a high-scoring game. Let's go with NC State 38, ASU 34.
Backing the Pack asks House of Sparky
1. I'm curious what the mood is within the fanbase now that Herm Edwards has been hired. It's an interesting hire for sure--are you guys terrified or excited or a little of both? Are most folks on board with this hire?
Destin: I’m not sure if it’s marinated well, but at first, most ASU fans did not like it. The biggest problem was it looked like there was only one candidate, and Athletic Director Ray Anderson hired his buddy. Anderson was Edwards’ agent in his eight NFL head coaching years.
On the flip side, I went to Los Angeles for winter break where people love the hire. It seems the move was so bold that it may need time to sink in. However, he signed 11 of 12 commits on early signing day, and has yet to do it, but may land some seriously big recruits. If he can set the tone in recruiting in January, he’ll have Tempe’s back.
2. What are the issues that have plagued Arizona State's defense this season, and where are the biggest mismatches for ASU's defense?
Destin: Big plays. Big plays from running backs.
ASU gave up 301 rushing yards to Stanford’s Bryce Love alone. It was the most he had in any game all season. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and USC’s Ronald Jones rushed for 216 yards each in games against ASU. It wasn’t really all the yards, but the monstrous plays within them. The Sun Devils gave up multiples 40 to 50-yard touchdown runs to all three of those running backs in each game.
There isn’t really a major mismatch with ASU, it’s just the defense is so inconsistent. Just keep the ball away from the middle of the field. Linebacker Christian Sam led the Pac-12 in tackles and fellow LB DJ Calhoun didn’t miss a tackle until midway through the season. I mean, when you’re passing defense ranks No. 119 and rushing is No. 79, it isn’t pretty. Throw the ball, and NC State will likely have success.
3. In light of the coaching change, do you expect the Sun Devils to look any different in terms of scheme on Friday?
Destin: Yes, but not exactly. Since offensive coordinator Billy Napier fled to Louisiana-Lafayette, soon-to-be offensive line coach Dave Christensen will help head coach Todd Graham call plays. Christensen has been both the Missouri and Toledo offensive coordinator and last head coached at Wyoming from 2009-13.
Even without Napier, I’d expect Arizona State to be fast like they have all year. ASU averages 79 plays per game, which is 12th in the country, and had the fifth-best red zone offense in the country, scoring 95.8 percent when within the 20-yard line.
4. What are quarterback Manny Wilkins' strengths and weaknesses?
Destin: He’s not going to beat you with his arm. He’s fast, but won’t beat you with his legs. Wilkins is just extremely tough and very efficient. He had just five interceptions after being sacked 37 times. He’ll run, and isn’t afraid to get hit. His signature move is actually hurdling over people.
His 2,918 yards and 17 touchdowns come from his ability to manage a game well, making the right throws at the right time to keep the offense rolling. His weakness is singling out and locking eyes on certain receivers. Wilkins is well-aware N’Keal Harry is an NFL receiver, but will make it obvious half the time he throws it to him.
5. Who are a couple guys that might be a little under-the-radar that we should look out for?
Destin: He may not be under-the-radar, but you haven’t asked about him yet, so I’ve got to mention Demario Richard. He had 220 yards in ASU’s first six games and finished with 761 in the second half of the season, including four 100-yard or more games in his last four games. He’s listed 5-10, but might be a bit smaller, and can slip through holes easy.
Watch out for Kyle Williams too. He’s also 5-10, but brings speed and fits ASU’s offense perfect when its running tempo. Averaging 11.5 yards per catch for 678 receiving yards is not bad.
Kalen Ballage can also be a game-changer. With just 657 rushing yards and six touchdowns, Ballage was overshadowed by Richard. But he’s still a 6-3, 230-pound running back who scored eight touchdowns against Texas Tech in 2016.
*You didn’t ask, but I’ll give one. Score prediction: NC State 34, ASU 27.