CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Standing in No. 11 North Carolina’s way from a school-record 11-game winning streak is N.C. State, which would like nothing more than to remove its rival from the College Football Playoff discussion in the regular season finale.
The hatred is real, and it runs deep. Rarely does emotion trump talent, although that’s not been the case in the UNC-N.C. State rivalry on the gridiron.
UNC (10-1, 7-0 ACC) is favored by six points over the Wolfpack (7-4, 3-4 ACC), marking the eighth consecutive season it’s been favored by Las Vegas. The Tar Heels have lost five of those previous seven meetings, offering a glimpse into the role emotion has played of late in this series.
In 2012, UNC offensive guard Jonathan Cooper told reporters that N.C. State is twice as good against the Tar Heels than it is against anybody else on the schedule. Fedora has talked in the past about the need to match the Wolfpack’s intensity level, although he was adamant this week that last November’s 35-7 loss – a game in which the Wolfpack was the aggressor from kick off to final horn – has not been a discussion point with his players.
“We really haven't looked back on last year's games very often and said, ‘hey, this happened, so we've got to do this,’” the fourth-year UNC head coach said. “It's more about our guys having done a great job of being consistent throughout the year, understanding that the preparation is the most important thing on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.”
Even so, it’s difficult to ignore the physical toll the Tar Heels have endured in this rivalry matchup. UNC’s starting quarterback has been knocked out of the game in three of the last four contests, including the last two at Carter-Finley Stadium. Former Tar Heel quarterback T.J. Yates managed to finish his final game against N.C. State in 2010, but added this disclaimer: "That's the most I've ever been hit in a football game."
A similar approach can be expected on Saturday, as the Tar Heels are superior in most statistical categories. UNC ranks 10th nationally in scoring offense (40.9) and 21st in scoring defense (19.5), whereas N.C. State ranks T-39th in scoring offense (33.6) and T-34th in scoring defense (21.8).
“You play hard and play smart,” N.C. State head coach Dave Doeren said. “You play physical. You play tough. You be aggressive and play as best as you know how. If that's not good enough, it's not.”
The Wolfpack will attempt to make UNC one-dimensional in same way its managed in recent years: by shutting down the ground game. Over the last five meetings, UNC has totaled 390 rushing yards on a 2.5 yards-per-carry average. Skewing those statistics a bit are N.C. State’s 18 sacks during that time period.
In 2015, N.C. State is holding opponents to 123.1 rushing yards per game, good for 21st nationally, and have tallied 31 sacks, good for T-17th.
The primary difference from last season’s debacle – the Tar Heels’ 207 yards of total offense marked the lowest during Fedora’s head coaching career – is the emergence of UNC’s offensive line, which has not only protected quarterback Marquise Williams (167-of-258 passing, 2,431 yards, 17 TD, 7 INT; 733 rushing yards, 10 TD), but also won at the point of attack and opened holes for Elijah Hood (1,060 yards, 14 TD) and T.J. Logan (272 yards, 3 TD).
UNC has allowed the fewest number of sacks in the ACC (12.0) and ranks second in rushing offense (216.6). Those statistics help explain why the Tar Heels are one of just 10 teams nationally averaging more than 200 yards on the ground and 250 yards through the air.
“The whole defense, they play with confidence and they play with a certain type of swagger,” Williams said. “They’re always hustling to the football. That’s what State has always been good at, having a good defense. We’ve got to come out, take care of the football, no turnovers, and execute.”
The point of attack battle extends to the other side of the ball as well. Despite losing its top-two running backs – Shad Thornton due to dismissal, Matt Dayes due to injury – N.C. State has aided quarterback Jacoby Brissett (208-of-330 passing, 2,242 yards, 17 TD, 3 INT) with the ACC’s fourth-best rushing attack (191.7).
UNC ranks 100th nationally in rushing defense (199.2), although it has stiffened in recent weeks. The Tar Heels have allowed its last two opponents – Miami and Virginia Tech – to combine for 229 rushing yards on a 2.9-yards-per-carry average. N.C. State’s lack of a consistent deep ball threat, as evidenced by Brissett’s 6.8-yards-per-passing-attempt (10th in ACC), places an onus on running the ball if the Wolfpack hopes to pull the upset.
The team that has churned out the most rushing yards in this series has won 20 of the last 23 meetings.
One thing is for certain – the Tar Heels are not looking past the Wolfpack to the ACC Championship Game matchup with No. 1 Clemson.
“You can’t think ahead because you’re going against N.C. State,” Williams said.
A win would move UNC to 11-1 on the season with at least two postseason games to play. Only four teams in school history have won 11 games in a season. UNC has never won 12 games in a season.