The Rivalry is Back On

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's standard procedure immediately following a game is to review film and discuss the contents before moving on to the next opponent. For the first time in five years, that approach changed on Saturday night as N.C. State became the topic of conversation.

"Right after that ball game on Saturday, we started getting ready for this one, so it's important to us," head coach Everett Withers told reporters on Monday at his weekly press conference.

Withers, born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., wanted to make sure that his players knew that this weekend's showdown with the Wolfpack was more than just the next game on the schedule.

"He really didn't stress the film as much from this past week," freshman wide receiver/returner T.J. Thorpe said. "We definitely looked at it, but he really wanted to put emphasis on going out and making sure that we do what we have to do against State."

That's a stark adjustment from the Butch Davis era. The former UNC head coach played the NFL card in claiming that no game was more important than another, including the rivalry game against the program from West Raleigh. But that approach resulted in an 0-4 record against N.C. State, which represents the second-longest losing streak in a series that UNC has otherwise dominated (63-31-6).

While former head coach John Bunting ('01-‘06) couldn't do much right on the field, what he could do was beat his rival. His 4-2 record against the Wolfpack helped keep him employed despite only one winning record in six years.

"It's two different mindsets," defensive end Quinton Coples said. "I think that Coach Davis looked at every win as a must-win situation and Coach Withers looks at it as there are just some games that stand out as statement games. There are statement games that you have to win."

Withers provided a glimpse of that change of philosophy during the preseason when he added winning the state championship to the team's list of goals. And once East Carolina appeared on the schedule in early October, the former Appalachian State defensive back and longtime Carolina fan amped up his intensity in practice.

Coples described Withers's enthusiasm leading up to that East Carolina game as "powerful" and added that the entire team responded well, as evidenced by UNC's 28-3 halftime lead.

"He did a great job helping the outsiders – the players from outside of the state – understand how important that game was," Coples said.

North Carolina delivered a similar performance against its second in-state foe on Saturday in demolishing Wake Forest, 49-24. Those two victories represent UNC's best performances in 2011, and that's likely not by coincidence.

Withers didn't shy away from emphasizing the 101st meeting between these two programs on Monday.

"Yes, it's important," Withers said. "Sometimes you want to stay so focused that you want to say, ‘It's the next game, it's the next game.' But a lot of these kids were recruited by State… So I think it's important when you have a school that's only 20-25 miles down the road be a rivalry."

The Tar Heels' current four-game losing streak to N.C. State has been a comedy of errors. Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien has limped to a 29-29 record – 15-21 in ACC play – during his five-year tenure, but he has succeeded in stressing the importance of this rivalry and delivering with victories. He may need a fifth-straight win over UNC if he wants to keep his job.

That won't be the case this time around. North Carolina is playing to move up the bowl food chain after earning postseason eligibility last weekend, while also knowing that a victory puts the Wolfpack in a difficult position of needing to win its final three games of the season to become bowl eligible.

Adding to the fire is a long year of commentary from N.C. State fans concerning UNC's NCAA troubles that will likely continue from the stands on Saturday. The Tar Heels have already experienced some of the name-calling in their trip to Greenville, but it will be ratcheted up at Carter-Finley Stadium.

"What Coach Withers says is just eliminate the noise, all of the stuff that doesn't matter [and] focus on what does matter," Thorpe said. "I think that's what our main goal is. Even to this point now, I've had people already texting my phone and antagonizing people that I hung out with in high school, like ex-girlfriends, and parents. So it's been crazy already."

But possibly the big ticket item riding on this game is Withers' fate. Lose on Saturday and it will be extremely difficult for the interim head coach to gain enough support to become the permanent head coach in Chapel Hill. Win and that door will open ever so slightly.

It's rare that a N.C. State football game means this much to North Carolina's coaches, players and fans.

"I think this game will definitely define us and our season a little bit as a team," Thorpe said.

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