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* The glory days of good smack talk and bad football under John Bunting and Chuck Amato have been a distant memory in recent years as former UNC head coach Butch Davis refused to engage in that type of banter, despite O'Brien's occasional prodding.
But Withers re-emphasized the rivalry on Monday and ignited controversy during an interview with 99.9 The Fan on Wednesday afternoon.
"When you have as many schools in this state as we have, and the recruiting base gets watered down a bit, I think the kids in this state need to know the flagship school in this state," Withers said. "They need to know it academically. If you look at our graduation rates, as opposed to our opponent's this week, graduation rates for athletics, for football, you'll see a difference. ... If you look at the educational environment here, I think you'll see a difference."
The NCAA released its six-year graduation rates of its member schools last week. N.C. State ranks last in the ACC in both graduation success rate (74 percent) and federal graduation rate (72). North Carolina's GSR and FGR both stand at 88 percent.
But while Withers's comments would not draw criticism in most years, North Carolina's recent NCAA troubles provided O'Brien a platform to fire back on Thursday morning.
"I'm just going to coach my football team and I'm not going to coach his but as far as the flagship, here was a guy that's on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis, that if you take three things that you can't do in college football – you have an agent on your staff, you are paying players and you have academic fraud," O'Brien told reporters. "That's a triple play as far as the NCAA goes."
O'Brien quickly backed off his "paying players" comment when asked about that statement and clarified by saying that UNC "had players accepting money from somebody."
As expected, a large media contingent descended on Navy Fields for Withers's response later in the afternoon, but the interim head coach refused to splash more gasoline on the heated banter.
"Everybody knows this is a big week, a big rivalry and I think it should be for college athletics," he said. "I'm going to say something a little bit about my statement. My statement really didn't have anything to do with North Carolina State's academics. It was about my pride for the University of North Carolina and what our faculty and what our administration has done here.
"I have a lot of pride for what this school stands for academically. That's part of the whole student-athlete experience and that's what I meant by the statement. It had nothing to do with N.C. State. It was about my pride for the University of North Carolina."
When asked if he would address the issue with O'Brien prior to kickoff, Withers replied, "I'll talk about the game."
Withers added that he doesn't expect the bantering between the coaches to have an impact on Saturday.
* Credit O'Brien with using the UNC-NCSU rivalry to his advantage. Despite a 15-21 ACC record that rivals Bunting's first five years (16-24) in Chapel Hill, the former Boston College head coach still has support in the Wolfpack community due to his 4-0 record against the Tar Heels. His comments on Thursday will only help his cause as N.C. State needs to win three of its final four games to post its second winning season in his five years at the helm.
* N.C. State ranks second nationally in interceptions (16), but Withers offered a simple response when asked how to counter that defensive success: "Run the ball effectively [and] don't turn it over."
* Wolfpack quarterback Mike Glennon has completed 163 of his 263 passes for 1,847 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, but his offensive line has struggled to protect him in the pocket, allowing 2.75 sacks per outing (98th nationally).
UNC's defensive approach will focus on frustrating the red-shirt junior in the pocket with significant pressure.
"I think the biggest issue is just being able to get to him and get around him, no matter what the style is," Withers said. "First of all, you've got to stop the run and make them one-dimensional. And then when he's back there, we've got to have a plan, which we've worked on hard, to get to him."
* Withers provided his now standard quasi-official injury report to the media, indicating that wide receiver Reggie Wilkins (ankle) is out and that freshman linebacker Norkeithus Otis "probably" won't play against N.C. State.
"Everybody else is fairly healthy," Withers said.