CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina enters its Black Friday rivalry matchup with N.C. State intent on securing the program’s second nine-win season since 1997 while eliminating the Wolfpack from bowl eligibility.
The last time UNC and N.C. State met the day after Thanksgiving, the Tar Heels topped their rivals, 30-28, in Raleigh. UNC has won 12 of the 21 meetings since then, including three of its last four under Larry Fedora.
The Tar Heels (8-3, 5-2 ACC) are 11-point favorites and are looking to stay alive in the ACC Coastal Division race. A UNC win paired with a Virginia Tech loss to Virginia on Saturday would clinch a second straight trip to the ACC Championship Game. Don’t tell that to Fedora or his players, though. After the loss to Duke to Durham two weeks ago, looking ahead has been scrubbed from the Tar Heels’ mindsets.
“It's all about this game,” Fedora said. “Really nothing else matters. We either take care of our business or don't. We'll see what happens after that. Really what we control is this week and this game and so all of our preparation is really about us and the team that we play.”
Rivalry games are often a litmus test for focus and intensity, and both of these teams have plenty of inspiration from recent matchups. N.C. State ruined UNC’s Senior Day in 2014, thumping its rival, 35-7. Last season, the Tar Heels delivered payback at Carter Finley Stadium with a 35-7 first quarter lead en route to a 45-34 victory.
The Wolfpack, led by beleaguered head coach Dave Doeren, needs a victory for a sixth win and a bowl bid. N.C. State has lost four games by a touchdown or less, including a 24-17 overtime defeat at No. 4 Clemson after Kyle Bambard missed a 33-yard field goal in the final seconds to win the game.
“It's definitely been a year of roller coaster finishes, and we haven't felt very good at the end of most of them,” Doeren said this week. “I'm proud of our players and staff for sticking together and finding a way to get back up and fight week-in and week-out.”
N.C. State has been competitive in all of its games except for a blowout loss at Louisville on Oct. 22.
“I think Dave's very close to having this team over the hump, I really do,” Fedora said. “They have lost some excruciating, close games, but he still has his guys believing. I know they are going to come in here expecting to win this game and get bowl eligible, so I'd say he and his staff have done a nice job with them.”
The ground game has been a primary factor in this rivalry since the early 1990s. The team that has rushed for the most yards has won 21 of the last 24 meetings. UNC outgained N.C. State, 374-308, last season.
UNC ranks 98th nationally in rushing yards per game (149.5), yet 48th nationally in yards per carry (4.9). Elijah Hood (802 yards, 8 TD) and T.J. Logan (556, 7 TD) have been a formidable tandem carrying the ball for the Tar Heels. N.C. State counters with the nation’s seventh-best run defense, which is allowing 105.3 rushing yards per game in ACC play.
“We know that we have to run the ball successful, or efficiently, to be successful,” Fedora said. “We know that. That's going to be critical. It always has been in this game. The team that runs the ball successfully has usually had success, so we know we've got to do that. They are going to do everything they can to stop the run.”
The problem with trying to make UNC one-dimensional, as Pittsburgh found out in September, is that Mitch Trubisky is afforded more opportunities in the passing game. The junior quarterback is completing 69.7 percent of his passes for 3,188 yards and 25 touchdowns with only four interceptions.
“Trubisky is playing as good as any quarterback in college football,” Doeren said, “so it's going to be a challenge… You just have to choose what kind of defense you want to be, and we want to stop the run first. So there are times where our corners are on their own and they have done really well at times and they have struggled at times. But we have always felt like stopping the run first is what we want to be about and our corners understand that.”
The rushing matchup is equally as compelling on the opposite side of the field, as the Wolfpack’s Matt Dayes has already eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark (1,015) with eight touchdowns at a 4.7 yards-per-rush clip. The Tar Heels rank 114th nationally in run defense (233.4 ypg) and 80th in yards per carry (4.6).
Emotion, often as much if not more than stats, tend to shape this rivalry’s contests. After failing to win at Duke, the Tar Heels want nothing more than to end the 2016 regular season on a high note against the Wolfpack.
“State is State,” Switzer said. “They’re right down the road, kind of like Duke, but they’ve had a little bit more prominent football program than Duke has. It’s definitely a big game. It’s a game that neither side wants to lose.”