UNC (2-5, 1-3 ACC) holds a 64-32-6 advantage in the all-time series against the Wolfpack (3-4, 0-4 ACC), including last season’s dramatic 43-35 victory that was decided by Gio Bernard’s last-second punt return for touchdown. The Tar Heels are 27-14-4 against the Wolfpack in Raleigh, although they haven’t won at Carter-Finley since 2005.
North Carolina is a 5.5-point favorite, marking the sixth straight season that the Tar Heels have been favored against the Wolfpack. UNC is 1-4 during that stretch.
Tom O’Brien, the former N.C. State head coach who engineered a five-game winning streak against UNC from ’07-11, is no longer running the Wolfpack program. First-year head coach Dave Doeren has taken over and thus far has avoided the rivalry quips that O’Brien became known for in West Raleigh.
In fact, the only participant on either side to engage in smack talk has been UNC tight end Eric Ebron, who tweeted following his team’s 34-10 won over Boston College on Saturday that Wolfpack fans were in for a “rude awakening” this weekend. The junior tight end was not made available to media this week.
While UNC head coach Larry Fedora has made sure his team is aware of the significance of this rivalry matchup through locker room decorations and signage throughout the Kenan Football Center, he’s also cautioned about not getting too wrapped up in the theatrics.
“We want guys to be emotional and have fun with it, but also, they can’t let their emotions control them,” Fedora said. “They have to be able to make decisions under duress. They have to be able to make decisions in the line of fire. They’ve got to be able to do what’s expected of them, do their job. And at the same time, have fun, be excited.”
Both programs struggled offensively through the first half of the season and have seen varying levels of quarterback rotation to solve the issues. N.C. State’s Brandon Mitchell (20-of-36, 221 yards, 2 INT) started the season under center before breaking his foot in the opener against Louisiana Tech. Backup Pete Thomas (117-of-192, 1,314 yards, 3 TD, 8 INT) started five games in his absence, while Garrett Leatham and Bryant Shirreffs also earned snaps before Mitchell returned last week against Florida State.
Although Mitchell will likely receive the majority of snaps on Saturday, UNC’s coaching staff has been forced to prepare for all four options.
“It’s still a mystery,” Fedora said. “They all four do something different. You don’t know exactly who’s going to play or how healthy all of them are, so you don’t know all of the details…
“The main thing is that we understand the game plan and that we’re able to execute the game plan.”
UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning has simplified his defensive approach in recent weeks and watched as his defense turned in its best outing of the season in holding Boston College to 261 total yards of offense.
“Each week we're trying to build off of the positive things and get the negative things corrected,” Fedora said. “As we've gone, I can say that each week we're making fewer mistakes. We haven't cut them all out, but we're making fewer mistakes, and the mistakes that we're making lately, we've been able to overcome.”
Meanwhile, Marquise Williams’s emergence in UNC’s offensive backfield has resulted in a two-quarterback rotation with Bryn Renner (137-of-209, 1,641 yards, 10 TD, 4 INT). Williams (32-of-51, 445 yards, 5 TD, 3 INT; 158 rushing yards, TD) has led the Tar Heels in rushing over the past three games to bolster a soft spot in the offense.
“You have just got to be prepared for multiple systems based on who's in there and be able to execute within the framework of your defense,” Doeren said.
UNC has struggled up front this season, especially on the right side of the offensive line. The Tar Heels rank T-10th in the ACC in sacks allowed (17) and 13th in rushing offense (102.1 ypg). N.C. State’s defensive strength is along its defense line with Thomas Teal, Carlos Gray and T.Y. McGill manning the middle.
“They’re big across the board, even on the back end,” UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson said. “And obviously you know the effort will be phenomenal on Saturday. There’s going to be some matchup issues we’re going to have to deal with. We’ve got to utilize some tempo and some change of pace to help us there.”
The Tar Heels will attempt to offset the Wolfpack’s pressure with their perimeter screen game as well as utilizing Ebron in the passing game. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound All-America candidate (599 yards, 3 TD) needs just 27 yards to break his own school record for receiving yards by a tight end.
Saturday’s game is critical for both programs in an attempt to rally in November for a postseason bowl berth. A loss would extend N.C. State’s losing streak to four games, while a defeat would eliminate the Tar Heels’ margin of error with a sixth loss on the season.
In this rivalry, however, it’s not as though records matter much.
“Any time we get to travel down to Raleigh and play the team in red, it gets everyone excited,” linebacker Jeff Schoettmer said. “Not just the football players, but the whole school. We know that whether N.C. State is 7-0 or 0-7, they’re going to play hard and we’re going to play hard. It’s a big game for both of us.”
A UNC victory would boost Fedora’s record against the Wolfpack to 2-0, marking the best start since Carl Torbush in ’98-99.