As the saying goes, talk is cheap.
The talk of the town all offseason was how good this N.C. State defense is supposed to be.
Ten starters back. The best linebackers in the ACC. The depth at secondary.
On paper, it all sounded good, but how would it look on game day?
As it turns out, maybe they are as good as advertised.
The N.C. State defense played lights out, helping the Wolfpack defeat South Florida, 45-0, in the season opener for both teams. Sure, the Bulls aren’t Clemson or North Carolina, but it was a respectable opponent to keep out the end zone.
Shutouts have been hard to come by, especially under Dave Doeren. It’s the fourth time a Doeren-led N.C. State team has pitched a shutout, the first since a 41-0 win over Western Carolina in 2019. The 45-point win was the sixth time a Doeren N.C. State team has beaten an opponent by 40 points or more.
The offense racked up 525 yards of total offense and had two backs — Zonovan Knight, Ricky Person, Jr. — rush for more than 100 yards. But the rare times the offense stalled, the defense stood tall.
“When you can play a game like we just did and shut a team out,” Doeren said. “Those are hard to get. Coach (Tony) Gibson (defensive coordinator) and the defensive staff, proud of those guys.”
N.C. State (1-0) won the toss and deferred to the second half. That meant the highly touted defense would get on the field first, a quick look at the experienced unit.
It got off to a less-than-ideal start.
On the first snap, Bulls running back Darrian Felix found a crease and broke off a 16-yard gain. For a younger team it might have been cause for concern. Not for this group. South Florida (0-1) picked up only five yards the rest of the quarter. N.C. State held the Bulls to 3.3 yards per carry. When South Florida tried to pass, the Wolfpack defensive line was constantly in the face of both Cade Fortin and Timmy McClain. The two quarterbacks combined for 167 yards passing and three interceptions.
N.C. State had two games with three interceptions a year ago, and matched that in week one.
The first of those three picks came from sophomore linebacker Drake Thomas, who ended a South Florida drive at the 7-yard line late in the second quarter. It was the first time in the opening half the Bulls crossed midfield. It looked like they would finally get on the board, but Thomas, who made an impressive diving catch, had other plans.
“It’s a confidence booster,” Thomas said. “They get down in our red zone, the percentages are obviously higher for them to score points. On paper, they should at least score points in the positions they were in today. To pretty much say that’s not happening and to take the ball away from them and not allow any points in the red zone was a huge confidence booster.”
Defensive back Cyrus Fagan had a similar interception in the red zone, once again when the Bulls were in scoring territory.
Safety Tanner Ingle added an interception on the next drive for the final forced turnover. While the defensive line was applying the pressure (expected with two out of three starters back) and the linebackers were all over the field (expected with all three starters back), Doeren came away most impressed with the guys on the back end.
“The thing I really liked, to be honest, is the way we played the football in the air,” Doeren said. “It’s the first time in a while that our DBs just broke on balls and snatched them out of the air and made some really confident catches on footballs.”
It took N.C. State three games to get an interception in 2020. The defense also gave up 87 points in its first two games a year ago. Keeping the zero on the South Florida side of the board was almost as important as getting the win. With mostly reserves in on defense for N.C. State, the Bulls drove to the Wolfpack four-yard line before turning the ball over on downs. That fourth and four attempt from South Florida provided the most drama of the entire night. Once again, the defense rose to the occasion.
“In today’s college football, it’s rare you see a shutout,” Thomas said. “We really wanted it. Some of the guys (starters) were trying to get back in the game. That last incomplete pass, it was really exciting to see.”
The N.C. State defense set up some good field position for quarterback Devin Leary and the Pack offense. Ten of N.C. State’s 13 offensive possessions started in USF territory. Leary and company were blessed with a short field most of the night with seven of those 13 possessions ending in points. Having to face that defense all camp, Leary was not surprised they played lights out.
“I thought they played tremendously,” Leary said. “That’s just who they are, that’s how our defense is. They are competitive guys and they told us today ‘just get us some points, doesn’t matter if we score three points or 50 points, we’re going to home them to zero.”
Led by Thomas and his eight tackles, including 1.5 for loss, the defense heard the talk all offseason about their potential and knew it was important to come out and make a statement.
“We talked a lot of talk, we were getting a lot of credit,” Thomas said. “We were seeing stuff on the internet, but when it comes down to it and the lights are on all that matters is if you are going to perform and we had a good start tonight.”