#17 Louisville Cardinals v #24 NC State Wolfpack
Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, North Carolina
Score: #17 Louisville 25, #24 NC State 39
5 Things We Learned
1) No stage is too big for Ryan Finley
Featured by and commented on by multiple members of NDT’s staff, the NC State signal-caller has been a legit prospect. After his performance in primetime against a ranked Louisville squad, Finley has firmly thrown his hat in the ring of mid-round quarterbacks.
Finley’s ability to throw in rhythm and effortlessly place the football advantageously relative to coverage pulls to mind shades of Drew Brees. When working the flats and intermediate levels of the field, Finley regularly maximized YAC by leading his receivers to space. Even when he missed, he often overshot away from the defender, highlighting his awareness.
The highlight of Finley’s evening had to be his touch on deeper throws, however. An excellent pre-snap mind, Finley regularly attacked single-high, press-man coverage with boundary receivers Kelvin Harmon and Stephen Louis on go and fade routes. He hit a couple of back shoulder throws with excellent accuracy, and in the near red zone (<30 yards), he put multiple jump balls in ideal locations with resounding success.
The biggest question with Finley is undoubtedly arm strength–his throws to the boundary tend to fizz out in the air, especially when he’s throwing on the hoof, and even his long balls have a little too much air under them. He didn’t have to zip many balls across the middle or reach 40-50+ yards down the field often, and when he did, his receiver often had to slow and wait for the football to arrive. Every time Finley successfully diagnoses and attacks that back shoulder fade/go route, he proves his ability to vertically threaten the defense and boosts his draft stock.
Right now, for my money, between Mason Rudolph and Ryan Finley? It’s a conversation for sure.
2) Lamar Jackson continues to struggle against top defenses
I think it’s time to talk about this–and, don’t get me wrong, any semblance of help from his skill players would go a long way in this regard. Jackson’s receivers had easily five drops over the game–a couple were on 3rd down or in the red zone, as well. More points certainly could have made it up onto the board if those plays go different ways. Non-Jackson runners contributed 10 carries for 43 yards. That’s just atrocious.
Lamar is Louisville. There is none other.
But in 2016 and again in 2017, Lamar falls into some rough habits against talented defenses–especially talented defensive lines. Jackson has solid pocket awareness and the ability to make subtle adjustments and keep his eyes downfield–that’s great for such a mobile quarterback. But his internal clock betrays him at times, and he’ll see shadows in a clean pocket and look to break it if he’s been there for more than a few seconds. He has no reason to trust his offensive line, but he runs into too many sacks/pressure in these situations.
He’ll also press the issue of his dominance. You can tell he knows mentality that the entire Cardinal squad will be on his back every step of the slugfest, so he’ll keep the ball on reads that told him to give it away, and he’ll attack downfield when checkdowns are available. When throwing downfield, he was rushed, and when he was rushed, he was high–all night long. With a chance to drive down the field and tie the football game late, Lamar forced a pre-snap read for a pick-6 and all but buried his Cardinals. After a game of great ball security, it was a shame–and the result of trying to do too much.
Speaking to Jackson’s maturity, he’ll often come back from a hasty, self-determined drive far calmer, having clearly centered himself on the sideline. The reality: Jackson’s playmaking virtuosity is a double-edged sword. When he’s surrounded by fellow NFL-caliber players, hopefully he’ll learn how to share the load.
3) Nyheim Hines powers the Wolfpack offense
There are a ton of reasons to get pumped about this junior track star seeing his first year as the undisputed starter in Raleigh. The long speed and burst are naturally and undeniably present–the instincts, vision, and elusiveness are growing with Hines on every snap. He’s willing to lower his pads–both between the tackles and as a pass-protector–and he has pretty solid hands out of the backfield as well.
Tools are there. And the production is starting to come–his past three games have seen 94, 115, and 104 yards on the ground.
The most telling aspect of Hines’ emergence is how the NC State offensive staff leaned on him in the third quarter, after the Wolfpack had failed multiple time to extend their lead on a dangerous Louisville squad. Up by 4, Hines saw 2 targets and 3 rushes, including 4 of 5 plays inside the 20, where NC State had struggled all game. And when Louisville brought it back within 4 on the next drive, Hines took the ensuing kickoff 48 yards into Louisville territory.
This is a do-it-all player who will stick on your roster with solid special teams play (downed a punt at the 2 yard line) and provide juice and versatility to your running back stable. I’m buying.
4) Receivers go punch for punch
As both teams leaned on their passing attacks for the majority of the game, one receiver from each side stood out as the go-to target. Kelvin Harmon’s performance (6 receptions, 113 yards, 1 TD) particularly impresses for NC State, as usually feature piece Jaylen Samuels was relatively quiet, aside from a 79 yard catch and scamper. Harmon modeled an excellent ability to locate the football on those fade routes discussed early with Ryan Finley, adjusting with NFL-level savvy.
He slowed down underneath his TD catch and caught the ball away from his frame in order to box out the closing corner–that’s such a heady play. Jaire Alexander, barely returning from injury, challenged him at the catch point but Harmon attacked the ball higher and came down with it inside the 10. Harmon also snagged a back-shoulder fade with nice body control. The sophomore wide receiver isn’t draft eligible yet–just get excited for when he becomes so.
On the other side, WR Desmond “Dez” Fitzpatrick filled the void left by the injured Jaylen Smith with 10 catches for 134 yards. He showed excellent crispness breaking into the middle of the field, where Lamar Jackson carves up defenses, and adjusted well to a couple of poorly thrown balls. The Cardinals looked to get him the ball in space, and Dez racked up some serious YAC on a few drag routes underneath.
Jaylen Smith threatened down the field a lot more than we saw from Fitzpatrick tonight–but the redshirt freshman is still young, and has plenty of time to grow into a more balanced role. Jackson is in desperate need of it–he has an excellent deep ball, but nobody was open tonight. Credit the NC State secondary as well.
5) Bradley Chubb and Jaire Alexander: both “still”
We’ll start with the bad news. Potential CB1 Jaire Alexander was injured earlier in the year for Louisville, and though he saw playing time tonight, he’s nowhere near healthy. Alexander saw some red zone reps and played with characteristic physicality, anticipation, and an opportunist’s mindset–but the twitchiness was noticeably lacking in all of his limited snaps.
It’s encouraging that he’s back dressing on game days and felt comfortable enough to help bolster the Cardinals’ struggling secondary, but Alexander’s still unhealthy. We’ll have to wait at least another couple of weeks to see him back at reasonable strength.
Flipping it to the good news, Bradley Chubb remains straight dominant. He made his presence known early with a sack that popped straight out of teaching tape. His hand use and reduction of surface area are really nuanced for a college rusher–his bend and off-ball explosiveness have both improved dramatically when compared to 2016 tape.
As is typical of Chubb tape, hustle plays that simply should not have been made popped up everywhere. I highlighted in my Week 6 battles to watch this match-up between Chubb and Jackson, hoping that the NC State DE could show the athletic ability in space to contain Lamar Jackson, frustrate this Louisville offense, and prevent the Heisman winner from taking over the football game. All checks on all accounts for Chubb, who is unquestionably a Top-15 player in the Draft process at this time.