Countdown to Kickoff: N.C. State

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina looks to close out the 2014 regular season with its fifth win in six games by extending its winning streak over rival N.C. State to three games at Kenan Stadium on Saturday (12:30pm/ACCN).

UNC is favored by six points in the 104th meeting between these programs. The Tar Heels lead the all-time series, 65-32-6, and have won 13 of the last 21.

Saturday marks the first time in school history that UNC has hosted N.C. State for its regular season finale.

Both teams are bowl eligible with identical 6-5 records, although they’ve traveled different paths to reach the postseason. UNC lost four of its first six games before turning its season around with four wins over its last five. N.C. State, on the other hand, won its first four game but has since dropped five of seven.

The Tar Heels rallied from a 10-point deficit to defeat the Wolfpack, 27-19, last season. After the game, UNC players celebrated on N.C. State’s midfield logo, prompting strong words from Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren during his postgame press conference.

“I’m going to remember what they did on the 50-yard line after the game for the next 364 days, and I’m going to look forward to playing them next year,” Doeren said afterward.

Doeren’s first taste of this bitter rivalry confirmed the emotions involved.

“It’s a rivalry game,” said UNC head coach Larry Fedora, who is 2-0 against N.C. State. “That’s a big game for you. It’s not just another game. We don’t approach it that way. It’s fortunate that it is at the end of the season so we can approach it the way we do.”

For the third year in a row, the Tar Heels entered N.C. State week with Wolfpack paraphernalia decorating their locker room, courtesy of the coaching staff.

“We get a little angry because N.C. State is our rival,” senior bandit Norkeithus Otis said. “Once you see red in a Carolina locker room, it gets you.”

The Tar Heels have plenty of reason of optimism after delivering their best performance of the season in a 45-20 dismantling of then-No. 25 Duke in Durham last Thursday night.

Junior quarterback Marquise Williams, who ranks second in the ACC in total offense and scoring touchdowns, accounted for 374 yards of offense and four touchdowns against the Blue Devils, and T.J Logan ran for 116 yards and a score. It was the defense, however, that stole the headlines in holding Duke to 378 yards and forcing three turnovers.

The rout at Wallace Wade Stadium had players after the game wondering what might have been had the team played that well earlier in the season. UNC was ranked in the Top-25 to start the 2014 campaign.

“We’re really close to where I thought we could be,” Fedora said. “It took a lot longer than I thought it was going to take, but I think we’ve grown up in both fronts – offensive line and defensive line – and that’s why we’re playing much better ball at this time.”

The elation from the Duke victory will be short-lived if the Tar Heels don’t close the regular season on a strong note against their other in-state rivals.

N.C. State ranks 65th nationally in total offense (397.3 ypg) and 60th in total defense (388.2 ypg), which speaks to its even level of play across the field. The talent may be lacking, but the players have been coached up.

“The kids are going to be where they’re supposed to,” Fedora said. “They’re going to make the plays they’re supposed to make. If you go back and look at last year’s game, which I’ve looked at quite a bit, we made plays. They were there, but some of our big receivers just went up over them and made the catch.”

UNC’s most complete games this season have come when the defense forces turnovers and the offense is efficient in the red zone. N.C. State’s best games have come when it plays error-free football.

“We have a plus-3 turnover margin,” Doeren said. “We're top three in the league in least penalized teams. We're playing good red zone offense and red zone defense. All four of those areas have allowed us to be a better, more consistent football team. The games where we have taken care of the ball, we've done extremely well. It's been a huge formula for us.”

Saturday’s victor will clinch a winning season and move itself up the ACC’s bowl pecking order.


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