North Carolina owns a 63-31-6 overall record against N.C. State (4-4, 1-3 ACC). The Wolfpack's current 4-0 run represents its second-longest winning streak in the series.
Former UNC head coach Butch Davis refused to place too much emphasis on this rivalry, which provided a stark contrast to NCSU head coach Tom O'Brien's approach. But interim head coach Everett Withers has embraced the annual grudge match earlier this week and fired off shots on Wednesday in noting UNC's status as the flagship university of the state and referencing the school's superior graduation rates compared to N.C. State.
O'Brien responded on Thursday with jabs pertaining to North Carolina's current NCAA troubles.
When asked his thoughts upon hearing O'Brien's comments, Withers replied: "Boy, it must be a rivalry week."
The media circus due to the bantering has overshadowed the fact that Saturday's game is critical for the future of both head coaches.
Withers needs the rivalry win that his former boss could not deliver to keep him in the conversation for the permanent head coaching job at UNC, while O'Brien has struggled to a 15-21 ACC mark during his five years in Raleigh. A loss against North Carolina would put N.C. State in a position of needing to win its final three games of the season to post just its second winning season under O'Brien.
Everyone involved understands the importance of Saturday's matchup.
"It's a huge game with huge implications," UNC junior guard Jonathan Cooper said. "It will mean a lot to win this game."
North Carolina will be counting on its offense to replicate its performance against Wake Forest last weekend. Red-shirt sophomore quarterback Bryn 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 tailback Gio Bernard rushed for 154 yards – one shy of his career high – as the Tar Heels posted a season-high 562 total yards of offense.
Bernard (965 rushing yards, 11 TD; 243 receiving yards, TD) only needs 35 yards on the ground to become the first Tar Heel to rush for 1,000 yards in a season since Jonathan Linton in 1997.
"[Bernard] has very good quickness, he has good vision," O'Brien said. "When you have a line that has three guys that are 6'7", a couple 6'3", 6'2", guys all 300 pounds, he gets behind them and he pops out. The thing he has, he has breakaway speed. He runs away from people, great cuts, has good vision. It will be a great challenge for our team."
N.C. State is allowing 160.1 rushing yards per game, good for 66th nationally. The Wolfpack are also giving up 235.6 yards through the air (235.6 ypg) – including an ACC-worst – but have countered some of those deficiencies with a blitzing scheme that has generated interceptions (16, 2nd nationally) and sacks (2.63, 24th).
"There's a lot of blitzing, and if they're not blitzing, their defensive line is doing a lot of twisting," Cooper said. "You just have to be on your toes because their blitzes are late sometimes, so you just have to keep your head up and your eyes open and look for them to come."
UNC defensive coordinator Art Kaufman ratcheted up his aggressive against the Demon Deacons with more blitzing, and that move worked – Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price matched his season total with three interceptions and completed 17-of-29 passes for just 146 yards.
Withers attributed his secondary's success to improved communication, as well as the front seven's ability to collapse the pocket. Senior Zach Brown totaled nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception in earning ACC Linebacker of the Week honors.
"When you start talking about secondary play, the secondary is an extension of that front four," Withers said. "And if the front four is getting pressure on the quarterback, then the secondary will play well. We have to continue to get pressure up front so that the secondary can play well, [then] we can make the quarterback throw off rhythm and off schedule."
Red-shirt junior quarterback Mike Glennon (163-of-263 passing, 1,847 yards, 19 TD, 8 INT) has done an adequate job in filling the departed Russell Wilson's shoes, but the former quarterback's elusiveness helped mask a poor offensive line during his career. Glennon is a traditional pocket passer without Wilson's escapability and the result has been opponents averaging 2.75 sacks per game (98th nationally).
"We have to protect the quarterback, that has to be No. 1," O'Brien said "That will be a challenge with their front four. They do a great job of putting pressure on the quarterback."
North Carolina won the turnover battle against Wake Forest (5-1) for just the second time this season. UNC ranks 70th nationally with a minus-0.22 turnover margin, while N.C. State boasts a plus-0.88 ratio (12th).
"Creating turnovers for us is going to be a big thing this week," senior cornerback Charles Brown said. "We'll have a good chance to win if we can create turnovers and I feel like it's very possible with their team."
A win on Saturday would improve UNC to 7-3 for the first time since 2009 and mark the third victory in three tries against in-state schools this season.