And while the common approach to rivalry games is to throw out the records and the statistics headed into the contest, there are five keys for the Pack to extend its winning streak to three straight over UNC and put another nail in the coffin that has become the Heels' season.
1. Get T.A. Going
In the Amato Era, the Pack has averaged 207 rushing yards per game in its three wins over the Tar Heels. In its lone loss to UNC, NC State only rushed for 52 yards. The Wolfpack barreled its way to 258 yards on the ground in 2002, its best rushing output in the last 67 games. McLendon missed last year's contest, but hammered his way to 164 yards on just 22 carries as a true freshman, despite playing with a cast on his hand.
A healthy McLendon is the ACC's nightmare, and the junior has been able to accomplish that feat thus far.
"The biggest question mark for all of the people was, ‘Will he stay healthy?'" said coach Chuck Amato. "And again, he's such a tough kid -- and if you don't believe that, try to tackle him. You ask some of those people who had their helmets knocked off last week. He's a punishing, punishing runner.
"It almost reminds you of an Earl Campbell … just a punishing, punishing runner. And he could be that type of a player – ‘Hey, we'd better stop him before we stop [the quarterback].' Whereas, before, it was, ‘We'd better stop [Rivers] before we stop [McLendon].'
"He's more mature, he's a little bigger and he's a lot stronger. But at this point [knocks on table], he's healthy; he's been able to put three games back to back. He didn't play in the first game. I believe he's leading the league in rushing, and he's only played in three games -- for a team that, last year, averaged throwing the ball 30-some times a game.
"I think if he would have been healthy last year, he would have been just about as punishing. That's his style. He's a load that runs low to the ground with great balance and great vision. He moves as quick this way, with his shoulders square, as he does this way [down the field] sometimes."
2. Take The Crowd Out Early
Two years ago, Wolfpack fans invaded Kenan Stadium and created a near 50-50 split of allegiance in the stands. NC State hopes that it is the case again, but can't count on it. So one of the keys for the Pack will be to jump out to an early lead and remove all hope from the Carolina Blue faithful.
"It's great. The stadium and the fans that are in the stadium, it's like a 12th man on the field," said senior cornerback and Chapel Hill native Dovonte Edwards. "Being at an away game, it's almost like you have a 12th man out there. And that's an edge when you're in an away game. They don't have much home-field advantage."
The longer the Heels can hang around, the more optimism will seep into the squad and the fans. However, when the Tar Heels have fallen behind early on, they have shown a willingness to accept their fate and quit fighting. As a result, State will be looking to get on the scoreboard early and often.
3. Dominate The "Third Phase"
Virginia had a field day against the Heels, setting an NCAA record for kickoff return yardage. The Pack has yet to break a return this year, but Marcus Hudson, T.A. McLendon or Bobby Washington could bust loose against UNC. Tramain Hall is also due to find a crease on a punt return after bringing two back for touchdowns in 2003.
The Wolfpack has also gone three games without blocking a kick, though it did pounce on a fumbled punt snap at Virginia Tech. If State can get a touchdown or a big play out of the kicking game against the Tar Heels, it could be off and running the rest of the way.
4. Don't Beat Yourself
NC State is –3 in turnover margin after four games, turning the ball over nine times while getting six from the opponent. The Pack also ranks 116th out of 117 Division I-A teams in penalties, averaging 10.75 per game. The Wolfpack has declined from a season-high 14 against Ohio State to 10 at Virginia Tech to nine vs. Wake Forest, but it needs to continue that downward trend.
"It's not major, it's just that everybody has to learn their position and know exactly what they're doing to be aware of all things," said junior tight end T.J. Williams. "Mental mistakes happen and occur, but it's just about getting those things right and trying not to let them happen.
"If you get missed assignments and errors, you might run a little bit [extra at practice]. But you should learn from your mistakes and get better."
"Coach says penalties are just lack of discipline, so we've just tried to discipline ourselves in everything we do, whether that's going to class every day, not missing study hall, not missing check-in," said Edwards. "We do run for penalties; they discipline us well. There are consequences to those penalties."
State has a marked advantage in terms of talent and coaching against the Tar Heels, but turnovers and penalties can be an equalizer in any contest. It will up to quarterback Jay Davis to avoid putting the ball up for grabs, McLendon to not put the ball on the ground and the entire Pack team to play with discipline and not get caught up in the emotion that rivalry games stir up.
5. Relax And Spread The Ball Around, Jay
The biggest question around Raleigh going into tomorrow's game is, Will the second-half offensive performance against Wake Forest travel to Chapel Hill? Davis appeared to grab hold of the starting quarterback job in the final 30 minutes against the Demon Deacons, when he connected on 13 of 15 passes for 209 yards and a touchdown. The Wolfpack rolled up 206 yards – to none for the Deacs – in the third quarter, showing that it can be potent when it gets clicking.
With McLendon behind him, an offensive line that is beginning to jell, and weapons like Sterling Hicks, Tramain Hall, Richard Washington, T.J. Williams and Brian Clark as targets, Davis seems to be realizing that he doesn't have to do it himself. If the receivers can catch the ball first, they are all capable of making plays down the field against a poor-tackling Tar Heels defense.
Hicks, in particular, could emerge as Davis' No. 1 wideout. He has sure hands, runs precise routes, can get deep and showed the post-grab ability with his 57-yard catch-and-run against Wake.