If you're partial to the quaint college town of Chapel Hill, there's little doubt that you have cursed – or come close to it – at North Carolina's offense during this 8-3 (4-3 ACC) campaign. Countless Tar Heel fans have been heard muttering phrases like, "If only we had a decent quarterback or offensive coordinator, we'd be 11-1 and heading to a BCS bowl game."
If you're partial to the state capital of Raleigh, there's little doubt that you have cursed – or come close to it – at N.C. State's Swiss-cheese defense during this 4-7 (1-6 ACC) campaign. Countless Wolfpack fans have been heard muttering phrases like, "If only we had a decent secondary or defensive coordinator, we'd be challenging for the ACC Atlantic Division crown."
UNC defensive coordinator Everett Withers' squad (15.9 ppg, 12th nationally) has carried its offensive counterparts (296.0 yards of total offense, 113th nationally) to a second-consecutive postseason bowl berth, while Russell Wilson (276.7 yards of total offense per game, 16th nationally) is the primary reason N.C. State's average margin of defeat against FBS opponents is only 11.1 points per outing.
UNC's Butch Davis and N.C. State's Tom O'Brien have defended their lackluster units with a conveyor belt of injury reports, and there is some truth in that regard as a combined total of 25 players -- 13 Pack players, 12 Tar Heels -- sat out due to injury for the programs' respective games last weekend.
"I think that we've faced an awful lot of the same similar challenges this year – an inordinate number of individuals that have gotten injured throughout the course of the season," Davis told reporters during his Monday press conference. "I don't know explicitly N.C. State's situation. I just know that the challenges it presents to an offense… This has been a very, very young team and there are growing pains that go along with that."
A good example from North Carolina's standpoint is the 19-6 victory over Duke on Nov. 7. With multiple injuries across the offensive line, the Tar Heels lined up during one series with two true freshmen, a red-shirt freshman and a third-string center up front.
Embattled UNC quarterback T.J. Yates indicated that he understands what N.C. State has had to endure with regards to injuries and youth in '09.
"We kind of experienced that earlier in the year with the offensive linemen and some of the wide receivers that are obviously red-shirt freshmen or true freshmen," Yates said. "I know what they're going through, as far as defensively, if they're playing young guys.
"But I think our offense has progressed since the early stages when we had problems with protections. After you get a full season under your belt – as Coach Davis says all of the time to the young guys – you're not really freshmen anymore."
N.C. State's defensive presence has deteriorated so dramatically under Mike Archer's tutelage that even the most ardent O'Brien supporters have been relegated to the unimaginable – attempting to compare the defensive coordinator's unit with the early beginnings of North Carolina's stifling defense to keep hope alive.
The Wolfpack started three freshmen and three sophomores on defense last week against Virginia Tech, similar to how the Tar Heels started six freshmen in '07. But the comparisons end there. UNC allowed 345.9 yards and 23.5 points per ACC contest in Butch Davis' first season in Chapel Hill, while O'Brien's current defense has given up 435.6 and 41.1 points per game in league play.
Of course, it helped that North Carolina had a bevy of four and five-star level talent in that freshman class, such as defensive tackle Marvin Austin, safety Deunta Williams and linebacker Quan Sturdivant. Four members of that '07 defense earned Freshman All-American honors.
N.C. State has been forced to rely on quarterback Russell Wilson (3,044 total yards, 21 TD, 11 INT in ‘09) to remain competitive this fall, but even a player whose numbers stand above Wolfpack great Philip Rivers' first two seasons (5,529 total yards, 45 TD, 17 INT vs. Wilson's 5,387 total yards, 52 TD, 12 INT) in Raleigh is incapable of consistently carrying the heavy burden on his back.
As it currently stands, Wilson's immense talent may become as undervalued and overlooked as UNC's Darian Durant (9,630 total yards, 79 TD), who suffered 30 losses in his illustrious career. Wilson already has 14 attached to his legacy with one game left in his sophomore season.
As many N.C. State fans are quick to point out, Wilson was passed over by the UNC coaching staff in 2007 in favor of highly-touted quarterback prospect Mike Paulus. No disrespect intended to the Syracuse, N.Y. product, but plenty of Carolina fans have shaken their heads wondering what this UNC squad would look like with last season's All-ACC First-Team quarterback lining up under center.
In the end, these two programs' respective seasons offer confirmation to that age-old theory that a good defense will consistently beat a good offense over time. But if you're going into battle against a hated rival, Russell Wilson is a perfect example of the type of weapon that you want in your holster in a single-game setting.
The great thing about fierce rivalry games is that a victory will significantly lessen the criticism that will follow UNC's offense and NCSU's defense into the offseason. If Yates throws for a career day at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, the "Bryn Renner" chants will likely fade into the background. If Archer's defense forces four turnovers and helps Wilson pull out a third-straight win over their arch-rivals, the call for change on the coaching staff will subside, if only a little.
For the losers, however, that criticism could ultimately become unbearable.