The stats alone make the 102nd meeting between these programs intriguing. UNC ranks third in the ACC and 21st nationally in scoring offense (39.0 ppg), 29th in rushing offense (206.4 ypg) and eighth nationally in sacks allowed (8 total, 0.6 per game).
N.C. State counters with the 28th-ranked scoring defense (20.1 ppg) and 35th-ranked run defense (127.4 ypg), while leading the ACC in sacks (3.1, 8th nationally) and tackles for loss (8.4, 4th nationally).
For the sake of comparison, North Carolina held a more significant advantage in the statistical rankings prior to last season’s matchup, but those results mirrored the 2010 loss.
In that 29-25 N.C. State victory in 2010, North Carolina was held to minus-seven rushing yards on 26 attempts. Those numbers, of course, were dramatically skewed by seven Wolfpack sacks.
Then-UNC quarterback T.J. Yates, a fifth-year senior, offered a telling comment in the days following that loss: "That's the most I've ever been hit in a football game."
Fast forward to UNC’s 13-0 loss at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. The Tar Heels did manage to finish the game on the positive side of the rushing yards spectrum, but only with three net yards on 28 carries, good for a 0.1 yards-per-carry average.
Gio Bernard churned out 47 yards on 18 carries, while quarterback Bryn Renner (9-of-17, 76 yards, 2 INT) was sacked three times and knocked out of the game with a mild concussion. Backup quarterback Braden Haden (7-of-13, 86 yards, INT, sack) endured similar results.
Officially, UNC has rushed for minus-four yards on 54 carries in its last two games against N.C. State. If you’re looking for a statistic to gauge being physically beaten at the point of attack, that’s it.
Fedora told reporters during his weekly press conference on Monday that there was little value in looking back at those two offensive performances out of the pro-set, primarily because it’s “not even close scheme-wise.”
What he said next will undoubtedly be a talking point up until kickoff on Saturday and potentially even after, depending on the outcome.
“I think probably the main thing you look at is to see the intensity level at which they’ll play,” Fedora said. “That’s something that we’ve got to do a good job of – we’ve got to match the intensity level.”
When asked to explain his team’s ability to dominate the line of scrimmage following last season’s victory, former N.C. State linebacker Terrell Manning pointed to preparation and being fired up.
“We’re always ready to play against Carolina,” Manning said.
Compare that approach with Bernard’s postgame comments from the 13-0 loss: “I didn’t feel right going into the game. I felt guys were just joking around and not taking this game seriously. I knew guys were just not really focused in.”
Playmakers, schemes and banter will all factor into the equation of Saturday’s contest. If North Carolina doesn’t match N.C. State’s energy at the line of scrimmage, however, none of those other aspects will matter much.
“Every year since I’ve been here, they always play with a ton of intensity,” Renner said on Monday. “They’re a very well-coached team and they’re going to play hard. They’ve had the upper hand, so we have to try to match their intensity and get out early and try to play a good, clean game.”
Senior offensive guard Jonathan Cooper said N.C. State is twice as good against North Carolina than when it plays anybody else on the schedule, highlighting the Wolfpack’s energy level and emphasis on this rivalry.
According to Cooper, the key for North Carolina’s offensive line is to block out the past and focus on the present.
“Don’t overthink it, don’t get psyched out,” Cooper said. “Go play it one play at a time, because I feel like a lot of times, you think about their streak, you think about last year and the year before that, and you just get caught up in all of it. So if you just go one play at a time and do your job, I feel like we’ll be okay.”
One critical challenge for UNC’s offensive line will be protecting Renner. The Wolfpack has been effective in pounding Tar Heel quarterbacks in recent years, and that emphasis will only increase with Renner working out of the shotgun.
In addition to being knocked out of last year’s game in Raleigh, the red-shirt junior has had the wind knocked out of him twice this season – at Wake Forest and at Duke – only to return less composed and less effective.
In the roughly 100 minutes following the two hits, Renner completed 54.3 percent of his passes (31-of-57) for 344 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. In the preceding 20 minutes of play in those two games, as well as the other six contests, Renner completed 64.4 percent of his passes (134-of-208) for 1,684 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Renner summed up the five-game losing streak rather well on Monday.
“We know what they’re going to bring to the table every time we play them, so it kind of just depends on us,” Renner said.
If Fedora’s offense fails to match N.C. State’s physicality and intensity at the line of scrimmage, then its success thus far will be overshadowed by news of a record sixth-straight loss to the Wolfpack.
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