Tom O'Brien is running out of time in Raleigh. The former Boston College head coach that elevated the Eagles into one of the top programs in the Big East has found Tobacco Road much more difficult to traverse in building N.C. State into an ACC heavyweight. The fifth-year Wolfpack head coach is currently 29-29 overall, including a 15-21 mark in ACC play and a 5-17 record against Atlantic Division foes. O'Brien has leaned on injury excuses to explain his teams' troubles since he arrived in the Triangle with the exception of last season's 9-4 record in which N.C. State's seven starts lost to injury were 12th-fewest in the NCAA, according to philsteele.com.
But while the injury excuse is wearing thin with the media and in certain segments of the fan base, O'Brien can still boast a 4-0 record against archrival North Carolina. The Wolfpack (4-4, 1-3 ACC) has to win three of its final four games to become bowl eligible due to a pair of victories over FCS opponents, and with No. 11 Clemson coming to town on Nov. 19, a fifth-straight win over North Carolina is critical for both postseason aspirations and O'Brien's job security.
N.C. State ranks 91st nationally in total offense (345.0 ypg) and 70th in total defense (395.8 ypg), but has capitalized on a plus-0.88 turnover margin (12th) to scratch out a .500 record. The Wolfpack's lone victory over a BCS opponent this season occurred at Virginia (28-14) on Oct. 22 with losses coming against Wake Forest (34-27), Cincinnati (44-14), Georgia Tech (45-35) and Florida State (34-0). Slow starts have been a problem as NCSU has been outscored 24-65 in the first quarter this season.
"Forget about it and move on. I hope that we're able to do that. There are a plethora of examples week in and week out of teams that play one week and don't play the next. You can't let teams beat you twice, and that happens when you win or when you lose the previous week. Two weeks ago you'd say we were progressing, last week you'd say we took a step back. It's still a growth process; we'll reassess and see how we grow this week." – O'Brien on moving past the Florida State loss
"It's an important game because it's important to our faculty, our staff, our alumni and our fan base. I think that's what makes it different. There are games throughout the year where you can just tell - you look at all you guys here today and you know that it's not just a normal game that you play during the season." – O'Brien on the rivalry
Matchups to Watch
NCSU's Mike Glennon vs. UNC's Pass Defense
Ask most North Carolina fans the reason behind the last three losses to N.C. State and the likely response is just one name – Russell Wilson. The current Wisconsin Badgers starting quarterback earned distinction as one of the best signal callers in Wolfpack history in three seasons due to his ability to make the big play.
But while it's easy for national media types to point to Wilson's highly-publicized offseason departure to Madison as being the primary factor in N.C. State's failure to live up to preseason expectations, that's not a fair assessment as his replacement – red-shirt junior Mike Glennon – has faired well in an unenviable position.
Glennon has completed 163 of his 263 passes for 1,847 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions behind an offensive line allowing 2.75 sacks per game, good for 98th nationally.
"I really had a lot of respect for [Wilson]," Withers said. "He just had a lot of playmaking ability. What they have now is a very good quarterback that's a little bit more of an in-the-pocket quarterback who stands back there. Russell Wilson, you had to do so many things to keep him back there in the pocket because he was so dangerous once he got out of the pocket throwing and running. "They're two different quarterbacks in a lot of ways, but they both have the ability to win games and throw the ball down the field."
North Carolina has been susceptible to the pass all season long (257.4 ypg, 98th) due to a conservative scheme designed to protect inexperienced players in the secondary, but coordinator Art Kaufman has turned up the aggressiveness over the past two weeks. UNC held Wake Forest to 210 passing yards and intercepted four passes due to increased blitzing on Saturday.
North Carolina has been dominant in run defense (106.3 ypg, 22nd) this season and should be able to limit a NCSU ground game that ranks 105th nationally (105.9 ypg). Making the Wolfpack one-dimensional will allow Kaufman to put more pressure on Glennon and his offensive line.
In that scenario, the Tar Heels will have to guard against speedster T.J. Graham (28 catches, 531 yards, 4 TD) blowing the top off their zone coverage and opening space for other receiving targets such as tight end George Bryan (13 catches, 130 yards, 2 TD) and Tobias Palmer (23 catches, 245 yards, 2 TD).
UNC's Offense vs. NCSU's Defense
Offensive coordinator John Shoop has searched for productive offensive balance ever since arriving in Chapel Hill prior to the '07 season, but that luxury has proven evasive. From '07-10, North Carolina's average national rank in passing offense (65th) and rushing offense (92nd) fell short of the quality desired.
When the passing game was clicking last season (264.0 ypg, 26th), the run game was lacking (125.7 ypg, 94th). When the rushing attack was at its mediocre best in '09 (132.9 ypg, 79th), success through the air was scarce (174.9 ypg, 102nd). But while some media members have focused on Gio Bernard's emergence in '11 (965 rushing yards, 12 total TD) and others have pointed to Bryn Renner's top-10 national ranking in passing efficiency (171.9), the truth of the matter is that both aspects complement each other.
The result has been a ground game that ranks 58th nationally (160.6 ypg) and an air attack that ranks 39th (253.7 ypg), which represents the most balanced offense that Shoop has produced in five years.
Renner (168-of-231 passing, 2,195 yards, 19 TD, 9 INT) completed 21 of his 28 passes for a career-high 338 yards and three touchdowns and Bernard churned out 154 yards – one shy of his career high – and two rushing touchdowns against Wake Forest last Saturday. That combination allowed UNC to post a season-high 562 yards of offense.
"The ability to run the football and stay consistent with trying to run the football will help Bryn down the road to throw the ball," Withers said.
The UNC head coach told reporters on Monday that N.C. State plays a similar blitzing-style defense to what the Demon Deacons brought to Chapel Hill. UNC knew that Wake's zone blitzes would cause some negative-yardage plays, but the offense's ability to remain patient with the run game allowed for big gains as the game wore on.
N.C. State's defense has struggled for most of the season (395.8 ypg, 70th) and injuries up front haven't helped, but Mike Archer's unit has made up for talent deficiencies with sacks (2.63 pg, 24th) and interceptions (16, 2nd nationally). Sophomore cornerback David Amerson (pictured right) leads the nation in interceptions with eight.
"They're very fast and we really need to be aware of what they can do," Renner said. "Amerson's a great player. We're going to have to find ways just to dink-and-dunk here and there and see what we can do on Saturday."
Rutgers and Georgia Tech forced Renner into bad decisions with their blitzing earlier in the season, but against the Demon Deacons, the red-shirt sophomore signal caller did a better job of picking up the blitz and dropping the ball off to the receiver in the open gap of the zone.
If Renner finds similar success on Saturday, UNC's balanced offense could be too much for N.C. State to contain.