The Wolfpack (3-4, 0-4 ACC) have handled their out of conference schedule with a trio of wins yet are still looking for their first conference victory seven games into the season. Head coach Dave Doeren's first year in Raleigh started with a 2-0 record after a dominating performance over Louisiana Tech to open the season and surviving a close contest against Richmond the following week at home. The first four games in Carter-Finley Stadium resulted in a 3-1 mark, including a valiant effort on a Thursday night national stage against nationally-ranked Clemson before falling 26-14.
Since its last win, the Wolfpack have lost three straight conference games to Atlantic Division members with two of those losses coming on the road. The Demon Deacons initiated the downward slide, followed by a home loss to Syracuse and then last week, the Wolfpack were routed by No. 3 Florida State in Tallahassee.
Quarterback Brandon Mitchell earned the starting nod in training camp but went down with a broken foot in the opener after completing his first three passing attempts for 93 yards. Junior backup Pete Thomas (1,314 yards, 3 TD, 8 Int) led the aerial attack while Mitchell was sidelined and struggled to produce consistently in Doeren's spread system despite leading the Wolfpack in total offense.
Offensively, N.C. State ranks 65th in total offense (412.9 ypg) and resides in the same statistical range with both its rushing offense (180.1 ypg) and passing offense (232.7 ypg). Junior wideout Bryan Underwood (30 rec, 357 yds, 1 TD) is the focal point of the passing game while the rushing attack is led by running backs Shadrach Thornton (68 carries, 357 yards) and Matt Dayes (43 carries, 188 yds, 4 TDs). Defensively, the Wolfpack rank 52nd in total defense (385 ypg) and passing yards allowed (224.4 ypg), while ranking 62nd in rushing defense (160.6 ypg).
"I think it's going to be a blast. I really do. To me, and I've said this before, I think that's what makes college football so great. It's the regional rivalries that you have, the bragging rights, the animosity amongst the fans and all the things that take place. I think that's the fun part about it." - UNC head coach Larry Fedora
"I have been in a lot of great rivalries, and all of them are really special. The day I was hired, everyone told me good luck, and a lot of them threw in ‘Beat Carolina' in there. Every place I've coached, there were always those special games. There were other games that other people told me that were their favorite games, but this is obviously a standout, especially for people close by." – Doeren
Matchup to Watch: Red Zone Production
N.C. State's defense has succeeded in preventing success on first down, ranking 38th in the nation. The problem that has arisen so far this season for the Wolfpack, however, has come in the red zone. Opponents have a 95-percent success rate once they enter the red zone against former UNC defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable's squad. That mark ranks 121st in the nation and last in the ACC.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels have struggled with capitalizing on their red zone opportunities. Through six games, UNC ranked T-102nd nationally in red zone touchdown percentage (52.6). Against Boston College last week, UNC broke through and scored touchdowns on all five red zone opportunities.
"[N.C. State's defense] is probably a little bit more basic than we've seen in the recent weeks but what they do is they're in the right place," Fedora said. "[Huxtable's] got a really good defensive front. Those four guys up front can play. They can get after it. That's a major problem for us right there."
UNC has struggled to run the ball once it enters the red zone, although the emergence of quarterback Marquise Williams has played a role both in sparking the ground game and improving red zone efficiency.
Notable Player to Watch: Brandon Mitchell
Mitchell transferred from Arkansas after playing wide receiver for the Razorbacks in his final season. He joined the Wolfpack during preseason camp and earned the starting quarterback job. A broken foot hindered the first half of his senior season, although he's back under center for this rivalry game. The Wolfpack faithful are banking on Mitchell improving the offense enough to flip the momentum in the second half of the year. In his return against Florida State, the Amite, La. native completed 17 of his 33 passes for 128 yards and two interceptions.