Never mind that the lowly Tar Heels are struggling at 2-3 with losses to powerhouses like Miami (Ohio) and Georgia Tech.
No, this is THE game for the folks from Raleigh. Heck, some Pack players have taken it upon themselves to shave their heads or get a dye job because the Tar Heels are up next.
Why you say? Why is the Wolfpack Nation obsessed with Saturday's game?
Because Carolina owns the Pack on the football field and everyone with even a shred of allegiance to the Red and White hates that fact more than anything. Eight out of nine grates on the psyche of Pack fans. Therefore, the rampant contempt for any and all things Carolina by those dressed in red. (Need a comparison? Consider Duke's relative dominance over Carolina on the hardwood in recent years and a Carolina fan's disgust over that.)
But, unfortunately for the Heels, the past outcomes mean nothing when high noon Saturday rolls around. Kenan Stadium should be full and rocking, though do not be surprised to see more red than blue in the stands prior to kickoff as State fans will make a concerted effort to overrun BKS for the day. If ever there was a need for Carolina fans to dispel the "wine and cheese" arguments, Saturday is it.
What role the crowd will play in the game remains to be seen. It should be loud in Kenan throughout the game. However crazy the notion, the plethora of red-clad fans in attendance could help the Tar Heels. Thus far in 2002, Carolina is winless at home while 2-0 in the den of an opponent.
Once the contest begins, the outcome will come down to the two T's. Tackling and Turnovers. Simple football concepts with major ramifications on the outcome of any football game.
There is one given in Saturday's game. NC State and Philip Rivers will move the football and score points. The key for Carolina is to force the Pack to work hard while doing those things. To do that, the Carolina defenders must have the best tackling game they've had thus far.
Putting pressure on Rivers will help, but State's passing offense is built on quick pass plays to the flats with the hopes the receivers can make the first tackler miss. Blitzing Rivers is an option, but doing so puts more players on an island and if Carolina can't limit yards after the catch to a minimum, look out.
Much was said in the preseason about the increase in team speed on defense. Clearly, that has not been the case on the field. As disturbing as missed tackles are, it is equally disturbing to see how long it takes for the Tar Heel defense as a group to close on a ball carrier. That being the case, the importance of good tackling is multiplied.
While the State offense will certainly do it's job, the Carolina offense will have no choice but to continue where it left off against Arizona State. While running the ball continues to be an uphill slippery slope battle, Carolina cannot abandon its goal to be a running team. Especially Saturday. While a large percentage of the offense will again come from Darian Durant's arm and the wide receivers' hands, a running game, however stunted, will keep the Pack from totally keying on Durant.
Holding on to the football is the only way the Tar Heels can keep up on the scoreboard. Moving the ball consistently should not be a problem that either team will have to worry about. Carolina's problem isn't moving the ball, it's giving it away. Give it away Saturday -- look out.
The Heels' best chance to win is via a shootout, Arizona State style. I do not think the Carolina defense, despite making several big plays late against the Sun Devils, can hold the Pack offense in check. Rivers is simply too good and T.A. McClendon continues to emerge as a future star.
A common theme in discussion about State and its 6-0 record has been the lack of schedule strength the Pack has benefited from this season. To that, I say "So what!" 6-0 and a No. 11 ranking is impressive any way you shake it out and to disregard State's success this season based on that is to be naive. Chuck Amato has a good team over in Raleigh and will play a good game Saturday. You can bank on that.
So, can the Heels continue their ‘ownership' of the Pack on the field going for yet another year? To accomplish that, Carolina will have to show something we haven't seen thus far in 2002.
A perfect game.
Have a comment? Email Tommy Ashley at firstname.lastname@example.org.