Big Mo. Either you have it, or you don't. Up until Saturday, NC State looked like it had the gained the football momentum against its rival, North Carolina. Maybe the status quo has now been changed to at least equilibrium.
This rivalry has taken some dramatic twists and turns over the past three games.
In 1999, the embattled head coach of the Tar Heels faced a N.C. State squad in Charlotte lead by former Pack head coach Mike O'Cain. The Wolfpack had lost six games in a row to Carolina, and were salivating at the prospect of ending the streak against a hapless Carolina squad.
The Tar Heels were 1-8 at the time, and it looked as if Carl Torbush might become the first Division 1A coach in history to be fired after only two seasons. When the smoke cleared, it took a game-saving tackle by Errol Hood at the 1-yard line to secure an upset win for the Heels, 10-6. The next week, the Tar Heels would beat Duke in a blowout, 38-0.
Carl Torbush kept his job, Mike O'Cain lost his.
Last season, the Tar Heels faced a rejuvenated N.C. State team. The Wolfpack, under first year coach Chuck Amato, entered Kenan Stadium 4-1, having lost only to Clemson in Death Valley. The Tar Heels, in a twist of irony, hired the former Wolfpack head coach Mike O'Cain as its offensive coordinator.
The Tar Heels had been blown out by Florida State, and had lost the previous week at home to Georgia Tech, but stood at 3-2 and still had the potential for a comeback season. Critical to that comeback was a win over NC State.
NC State won in convincing fashion in Chapel Hill, 38-20.
The Wolfpack went on to finish 8-4, with a win over Minnesota in Miami in a bowl game. Amato called it a "miracle" season.
The Tar Heels seemed to have lost "Big Mo" in football, and even worse, they had lost it to their arch-rival, N.C. State. The Wolfpack went on to have a great recruiting year, while the Tar Heels sent Carl Torbush packing and hired John Bunting, who was coaching linebackers for the New Orleans Saints at the time.
Amato and the Wolfpack made gains in recruiting, were closing the gap in the football stadium arms race, and looked like they might be gaining preeminence over the football Tar Heels.
After Carolina began the year 0-3, audible "chuck-les" could be heard emanating from West Raleigh. N.C. State had demolished Indiana in its opener, while the Heels lost in Norman, Oklahoma. Last weekend, N.C. State came back to win over Southern Methodist – though not impressively.
Saturday, Carolina went into Carter-Finley a slight underdog to the Pack, and came out an eight-point winner. The win came after a 41-9 dismantling of ACC heavyweight, Florida State.
NC State fans were far from convinced that the win gave the Tar Heels an edge coming into the game. After all, the ‘Pack had won convincingly over Florida State – a more impressive Florida State team – in 1998 and then laid an egg at Baylor the next weekend.
The charmed existence of Chuck Amato and the surging Wolfpack football team – especially over arch-rival North Carolina – was not in doubt by NC State fans – until Saturday.
Has Carolina permanently planted their heels on the Wolfpack chest? Don't think it for a minute. Chuck Amato, like Carolina head coach John Bunting, is doing all the little things right – staff decisions, recruiting, re-building facilities, getting the fan base energized. The accumulated effect of focusing on the little things has, and will continue to, pay dividends for NC State.
Amato and Bunting: More wars to come
What this game means is that the rivalry has been ramped up even more than it has been over its storied history. With these two coaches and staff competing so hard against each other, this rivalry could become one that rivals some of the top annual showdowns in college football every year.