During the 105-minute weather delay at Carter-Finley Stadium, Marcus Freeman was game planning with his staff. Junior running back Audric Estime ate a single hot dog. But senior safety Xavier Watts put in headphones and, in his own words, was “trying to stay locked in, just sit back, kick my feet up, relax.”
Watts and the rest of the Irish secondary came to play after the break and put together a strong performance against an NC State aerial attack that posed the first significant threat of the season for the Irish.
All told, the Irish secondary held NC State quarterback Brennan Armstrong to a 46.8% completion percentage on just 5.5 yards per attempt. They also produced three interceptions against the former all-ACC signal caller. All of it came against an NC State offense that tested the secondary often, throwing the ball nearly 50 times throughout the game.
“We knew they were going to take some shots, we knew that coming in,” Freeman said. “Early in the game, we weren't winning those shots, but later in the game, our guys were really able to go, not just defend the ball, but take it away.”
One of those takeaways came from Watts, on a play that Marcus Freeman called “the turning point” of the win Saturday in Raleigh. An Armstrong bullet to the seam went off the hands of receiver Kevin Concepcion, allowing Watts to pounce on the deflection and take it away for the Irish second’s into the fourth quarter.
“We fumbled in our own territory, right? The defense forced the missed field goal and then we go three and out,” Freeman said. “Then the defense has an interception, and that’s when we scored, and the game got out of hand.”
The turnover came just one play after Watts broke up a pass from Armstrong over the middle to Concepcion. The Omaha, Nebraska product later said the quick sequence gave him and the team a little added energy to keep making plays in a dominant fourth quarter for the Irish.
“It was really just an exciting moment for the team, to give us some juice,” Watts said. “It gave me some more confidence and to make more plays in the game. Obviously, it kind of set up the interception for me to able to read the play.”
The three interceptions came just a week after the defense forced two against the Tennessee State Tigers. All five Irish interceptions on the season have come from different players, highlighting the depth of the Irish secondary. More broadly, it signifies the aggressive mindset Marcus Freeman is looking for from his team.
“We’re going to be just as aggressive as any team we face,” Freeman said. “Let’s go out there and play ball and be aggressive as heck. That’s what I wanted.”
Freeman spoke at his Monday presser about the development of Watts and the rest of the safeties.
“You’re just seeing his [Watts’] confidence level continue to rise and give a credit Coach [Chris] O’Leary on the job he’s done with Xavier and that safeties room,” Freeman said. “We're rolling three to four guys at the safety position and they’re all playing at a high level.”
It’s a group of safeties that features a lot of experience, with starters senior Watts and graduate student DJ Brown. Graduate transfers Antonio Carter II and Thomas Harper have also played significant snaps. Senior safety Ramon Henderson has also played meaningful snaps, snagging a spectacular diving interception against TSU.
It’s a level of depth and experience that give defensive coordinator Al Golden confidence in his backfield signal callers.
“They’ve been great,” Golden said about the safeties. “They can problem solve on the field and they communicate well. That’s a big part of being a safety … If you’re strong up the middle, you got a chance to be a really good defense.”
Despite the strong performance Saturday, Watts spoke about the lessons the secondary can take from the challenges they faced against Armstrong and the Wolfpack.
“Obviously, there’s always things to clean up. Some guys were left open,” Watts said. “But we’re a group of competitive individuals. We just learned that we can compete with a lot of people.”
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