Since Tom O'Brien was named head coach at N.C. State in 2007, there have been plenty of ups and downs for the Wolfpack. Although only one of O'Brien's first five N.C. State squads finished over .500 in the ACC, wins over the likes of No. 8 Clemson in 2011 and No. 3 Florida State less than three weeks ago keep many Wolfpack supporters bullish on the head coach.
However, the best way to cater to a passionate N.C. State fan base is to beat the Tar Heels. O'Brien has excelled in that department, defeating North Carolina in all five meetings. A victory at Kenan Stadium on Saturday would mark the Wolfpack's longest winning streak over the Tar Heels since the series began in 1902.
Following a heartbreaking loss at Miami on Sept 29, N.C. State was in risk of falling to 0-2 in the ACC with undefeated No. 3 Florida State on deck. However, the Wolfpack stunned the college football world by holding the high-powered Seminole offense scoreless in the second half on the way to a 17-16 comeback win on Oct 6. Following a bye week, N.C. State survived a late rally and a missed 33-yard field goal by Maryland last weekend. The Wolfpack now control its on destiny in the ACC Atlantic.
Much like its head coach, N.C. State is a no-nonsense team. The Wolfpack does not overwhelm anybody on film, but are consistent, make minimal mistakes and capitalize on the miscues of opponents. This overachieving and gritty attitude is summed up by the bend, but don't break N.C. State defense.
The Wolfpack surrender plenty of yards on defense, ranking sixth in the ACC and 66th in the country in the total defense (394.14 ypg). However, the defense stiffens up as the opponent approach the end zone. The Wolfpack ranks third in the ACC and 28th in the nation in scoring defense (20.14 ppg).
The N.C. State offense is more explosive than the defense on paper, but has not put up the kind of numbers many expected prior to the season. Led by senior quarterback Mike Glennon (162-of-278, 1,988 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT), the offense ranks 55th out of 120 FBS schools in total offense (414.29 ypg) and 71st in scoring offense (26.86 ppg). Injuries to running backs James Washington (21 car, 63 yards, 1 TD) and Tony Creecy (81 car, 391 yards, 3 TD), as well as a banged up offensive line, have certainly hampered the offense, but Glennon has stepped up when needed, including against Florida State when he converted three separate fourth downs on the game-winning drive. Creecy is back from injury and Washington was listed as probable against Maryland, but did not play.
"[Gio Bernard] has flourished in this offense. He'll probably be the best running back we face this year, certainly. He has great speed, he can run away from you, he can run you over, he can make you miss, so he's the complete deal. They have a great offensive line. They're probably five NFL guys upfront there, so they're doing a great job. Larry [Fedora] has a great system, believes in his system and they're making it work right now." – O'Brien
"Offensively, it starts with the big guy, [Mike Glennon]. He can spin it. He can really spin the ball. He's got some good receivers and offensive line-wise they're doing a nice job. I think they're pretty balanced in what they do as far as run - pass. I don't think they're trying to dominate one way or the other. I think they're just taking what they give you and taking advantage of what you give them. They're very sound in the special teams. They don't do anything fancy. They're pretty much base and they're very good at what they do so they're a well coached football team." – North Carolina coach Larry Fedora
Matchups to Watch
N.C. State's Front Seven vs. UNC's Offensive Line
The biggest question mark surrounding N.C. State entering the 2012 season was the front seven on defense. The Wolfpack lost four starters, linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning as well as defensive linemen Markus Kuhn and J.R. Sweezy, to the NFL Draft in April. While the front seven did return three starters, the loss of talent up front appeared difficult to replace.
Despite the personnel losses, the N.C. State defense has picked up where it left off last season. A year ago, the defense led the ACC in sacks and was second in tackles for loss. In 2012, the Wolfpack are tops in the ACC and rank fourth in the country in tackles for loss (8.43 per game). The defense continues to excel at getting to the opposing quarterback as well. N.C. State once again leads the league and ranks eighth overall in sacks (3.14 per game).
"To start off, defensively for them, they're really big upfront," Fedora said. "They're athletic upfront. They're leading the league in sacks so they've done a great job getting pressure on the quarterback… They're linebackers were young or inexperienced I should say, but they've really come on. I wouldn't say they're inexperienced now. They've played eight games so I wouldn't say they're inexperienced now. They're coming into their own and they're playing very well on defense."
Saturday pits the most productive front-seven in the ACC against arguably the best offensive line in the league, if not the country. Led by All-America candidate and left guard Jonathan Cooper, the Tar Heel offensive line has only surrendered five sacks through eight games this season. The group of three seniors, one junior and one sophomore also pave the way for running back Gio Bernard (103 car, 795 yards, 8 TD), who leads the ACC in rushing.
Last season, albeit with four current NFL players along the front seven, the Wolfpack held the Tar Heels to just three yards rushing in a 13-0 victory. Bernard ran for 48 yards, but on 18 carries, and quarterback Bryn Renner was sacked four times for a loss of 47 yards.
If North Carolina can continue to open holes for Bernard and protect Renner like it has so far this season, the Wolfpack defense can be exposed down the field. Despite returning all four starters in the secondary, including All-American cornerback David Amerson, N.C. State ranks last in the ACC in pass efficiency defense (137.56) and 100th in the country in pass defense (266.71 ypg).
The defense is certainly more stout against the run, ranking 35th in the country and fourth in the ACC against the run (127.43 ypg). However, the Tar Heels rank third in the ACC in rush offense (206.38 ypg) and Bernard alone averages 132.5 yards per contest.
N.C. State's Mike Glennon vs. UNC's Defense
It is no secret that as Glennon so goes N.C. State. In losses to Tennessee and Miami, Glennon threw six total interceptions. In the five Wolfpack wins, Glennon threw nine touchdown passes against just one interception. If Glennon avoids mistakes, it typically leads to a N.C. State win.
North Carolina's secondary can best be defined as hit-or-miss. The Tar Heels lead the ACC in interceptions (11), but rank sixth in the league and 69th in the country in pass defense (233.38 ypg). It is the only major statistical category in which North Carolina does not rank in the top-45 nationally.
Glennon is a very accurate quarterback when given time to throw and it will be hard for the Tar Heel secondary to stop the fifth-year senior signal caller and receivers Quintin Payton (29 rec, 551 yards, 1 TD) and Bryan Underwood (22 rec, 342 yards, 8 TD) if North Carolina is unable to generate pressure upfront.
Fortunately for the North Carolina defense, N.C. State ranks 11th in the ACC in sacks allowed (2.71 per game). Injuries to offensive linemen Zach Allen, Rob Crisp and Andrew Wallace have not allowed for much cohesion upfront for the Wolfpack. Allen is out for the season, but Crisp returned last week against Maryland and Wallace was listed as probable, but did not see any action.
A few weeks ago the Tar Heels led the ACC in sacks. However, with just four sacks over the past three games, North Carolina now ranks fifth in the conference in that category (2.25 per game). Nagging injuries to defensive tackle Sly Williams (22 tackles, 8 TFL, 5 sacks) as well as defensive end Kareem Martin (29 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 2 sacks), who last week Fedora said was playing at 75 percent, have probably slowed down the pass rush.
Both are expected to play on Saturday, but North Carolina will be without tackle Tim Jackson (knee injury) as well as bandit Shakeel Rashad after a one-game suspension for his contact with Duke receiver Conner Vernon on Saturday.
Glennon is not known for his mobility, so the more North Carolina can force him out of the pocket, the better off the defense will be. If Glennon is able to sit comfortably in the pocket look for him to pick apart the North Carolina defense just like Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price and Duke quarterback Sean Renfree were able to do.
Both Price and Renfree led their teams on late scoring drives to beat North Carolina. In the past two games against Florida State and Maryland, Glennon navigated his team on game-winning drives with less than two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the game. The Wolfpack are 3-0 in games decided by six points or less while the Tar Heels are 1-3.