Tom O'Brien's seat in Raleigh was beginning to warm up as the 2010 season approached, thanks to a 16-21 overall record and three consecutive losing seasons despite having arguably the ACC's most lethal offensive weapon in Russell Wilson at his command. The Wolfpack were picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division in the preseason media poll and few expected the boys in red to do much better than a lower-tiered bowl game. But a talent infusion on the coaching staff in the form of former Georgia Tech and Notre Dame defensive coordinator John Tenuta to linebackers coach paired with a remarkable ability to stay healthy – only four starts lost to injury – has enabled O'Brien to post his first winning season at N.C. State (7-3, 4-2 ACC).
Turnovers have also played a role in the Wolfpack's fortunes this season. They led the ACC in turnover margin (plus-2.25) in darting out to a 4-0 record, but have cooled off in losing three of their last six games with 15 turnovers to their credit while forcing only 13.
N.C. State has been effective on both sides of the ball, ranking second in total offense (417.1 ypg) and third in total defense (327.4 ypg) in the ACC. Tenuta's influence in blitz packages has helped the Wolfpack averaged 2.9 sacks (T-9th nationally) and 7.5 tackles for loss (11th nationally) per contest.
O'Brien's squad controls its own fate in the Atlantic Division race. Wins at North Carolina and Maryland guarantees a N.C. State appearance in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte on Dec. 4, while a loss to UNC would put the Wolfpack's fate in the hands of FSU on Saturday night against the Terrapins.
"This game is going to be very emotional for a lot of the seniors on this team. It's going to be our last game in Kenan Stadium and I know a lot of us are going to want to go out on top." – UNC quarterback T.J. Yates
"The road to Charlotte goes through Chapel Hill; you have to win at Chapel Hill. Well, if you're at NC State and you're a part of this football program you have to win at Chapel Hill anyway. It's something that's part of the culture here and we accept that fact. Our kids have really risen to the occasion and played well any time we've played against North Carolina since I've been here." – O'Brien
Matchups to Watch
N.C. State's Russell Wilson vs. UNC's Defense
North Carolina was intent on keeping Tyrod Taylor confined to the pocket in last Saturday's loss to Virginia Tech, and the plan worked to the extent that the Hokie senior was held to minus-3 rushing yards on eight carries. But Taylor completed 13 of his 28 passing attempts for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
The Tar Heels tried a similar approach against Wilson last season, holding No. 16 to minus-16 rushing yards on 11 carries, but he picked apart the UNC defense in completing 20 of his 27 passes for 259 yards and four touchdowns.
Wilson (234-of-393 passing, 2,814 yards, 22 TD, 12 INT) hasn't been as efficient this season – he ranks fifth in the ACC in passing efficiency – but his total offense mark of 312.9 yards per game stands seventh nationally. The red-shirt junior has thrown for 300 or more yards in seven games this season, while also scrambling for 152 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
"I think he's a great quarterback," UNC free safety Deunta Williams said. "I always liked him and Tyrod because of their ability to extend a play. He makes very smart decisions. There were a couple of plays last week where I was telling [my teammates], ‘Russell would have found those open receivers while they were scrambling down the field.'"
But while there are various similarities between Wilson and Taylor, Davis emphasized that they are "dramatically different" schematically. Wilson is viewed more as a passing quarterback that has the ability to move the pocket while Taylor's legs are his greatest asset.
"Russell Wilson is playing at a very high level," Davis said. "He concerns you not only with his ability to extend plays and scramble, but he is throwing the ball very well. Sometimes you try to compare him to Tyrod Taylor, but I think he can really make you pay with his accuracy down the field if you're not fundamentally sound."
North Carolina defensive coordinator Everett Withers must orchestrate a game plan that puts pressure on Wilson. The Tar Heels only managed two sacks in last season's loss in Raleigh and currently rank T-71st nationally in sacks (1.8) in '10.
UNC's Ground Game vs. N.C. State's Run Defense
North Carolina's offensive backfield has often resembled a musical chairs rendition due to injuries and suspensions this season, and backup fullback Anthony Elzy was the latest to get his chance against Virginia Tech last Saturday, rushing for 82 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.
Elzy will get the start against N.C. State with Shaun Draughn, who is recovering from an ankle sprain, listed as his backup for a UNC rushing attack that ranks 92nd nationally (123.5 ypg). Despite a poor outing against Virginia Tech, UNC quarterback T.J. Yates has excelled this season through the air due to the play-action passing game. Elzy and Draughn will have to be productive behind North Carolina's ever-improving offensive line to capitalize on N.C. State's blitzing tendencies.
After being run over by Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech early in the season, the Wolfpack has been strong against the run over the past month, holding its last five opponents to a combined 552 yards and a 3.1 yards-per-carry average. O'Brien attributes that success to one of the league's top linebacker corps, led by Nate Irving, and plenty of depth along the defensive line. The Wolfpack are consistently rotating eight players up front.
"With the exception of one game, they've played about 30 to 35 plays a game because of the rotation," O'Brien said. "That allows you to be stronger; it allows you to be more powerful and quicker down the stretch."