"Last year was a great game over there. It was kind of the turning point in our season. We had a big win against Florida State, but to me beating State at State was real big for us," North Carolina head coach John Bunting said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday, "But this is a different team -- they're a different team and we're a different team."
"Oh, it's ‘the game,' absolutely", N.C. State head coach Chuck Amato said. "It's bragging rights for 365 days. That's what makes it neat."
It is appropriate that the kickoff for this game is at "high noon," because this game promises to be a shootout featuring two potent offenses.
The Wolfpack offense is written, produced, and directed by junior quarterback Philip Rivers (6-5, 236), currently leading the nation in passing efficiency. This will be the second week in a row that the North Carolina defense will face the nation's leader in passing efficiency, as Arizona State's Andrew Walter lead the nation prior to last week's contest in Tempe.
Rivers may well set all N.C. State passing records and break several ACC marks, particularly if he remains at N.C. State for his senior year. Rivers is second all-time at N.C. State in total offense, passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions, and attempts to Jamie Burnette. He is second in completion percentage to Terry Jordan. He already owns the Wolfpack record for the most 300-yard games in a career.
"I was hoping that he would go to the NFL last year and leave us. He is very sound, tall, and has a lot of criteria you would want in a quarterback," Bunting said.
Rivers has tossed 13 touchdown passes this season against five interceptions and completed 91 of 140 attempts (65%) for 1,481 yards.
Rivers' favorite targets are sophomore Sterling Hicks (6-2, 182), junior Jerricho Cotchery (6-1, 200) and senior Bryan Petersen (5-11, 190). He distributes the ball very evenly among these three receivers, as they have 17, 20, and 16 catches respectively this season. Sophomore Dovonte Edwards (6-0, 174) also gets into the mix, and has 11 catches this year.
"The receivers make plays, they catch the balls and run after the catch. They are going to make plays, they will have some trickery plays, they do a good job of that," Bunting said.
Senior tight end Sean Berton (6-4, 260) starts at tight end, and has not been as involved in the passing game to the extent that Willie Wright was a year ago. Berton has only eight catches this season, but is a better blocker than Wright.
At tailback, freshman T.A. McClendon (5-11, 214) has been a pleasant surprise for the Wolfpack, rushing for an average of 84 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry. McClendon injured his wrist two weeks ago, but is expected to be ready this Saturday. "We expect T.A. to play," Amato said. "We've been told that he should have no problem at all playing and I believe that."
Sophomores Josh Brown (5-10, 185) and Greg Golden (5-10, 190) also get carries at the tailback spot, averaging 40 and 31 yards per game respectively. Golden doubles as the reserve cornerback on defense as well. Sophomore Chance Moyer (6-2, 232) is the fullback, but is mostly a non-entity on the Pack offense except as a blocker. He has not had a carry or a reception this season.
The offensive line is lead by senior tackle Scott Kooistra (6-6, 304) and junior tackle Chris Colmer (6-5, 305), both of whom are returning starters. The guards are senior Shane Riggs (6-3, 290) and junior Sean Locklear (6-4, 286). Center Jed Paulsen has had a minor injury, but is expected to be available Saturday.
"I think Jed [Paulsen] will be available and if things go well, hopefully start," Amato said. "We got into a lot of drills last week, and it looks fine, feels fine. Obviously it can't be 100 percent, but the kid is hungry for it."
Bunting said, "N.C. State's offensive line, in my opinion, has improved, and they have some runners who can run the football. Last year, they didn't attempt to run. Now they are, and they are pretty dog-gone good at it."
The Wolfpack offensive line is also excellent at what has to be their number one priority – protecting Phillip Rivers.
Last season, the N.C. State offensive line allowed only 17 sacks in their 11 regular season games, and this year have allowed only four sacks in 162 passing attempts (only three of which came against Rivers), or once in every 40.5 passing attempts.
N.C. State is second in total offense in the ACC, averaging 418 yards per game. The Wolfpack is second in the ACC in passing offense (to North Carolina), and sixth in the league in rushing offense. The Wolfpack leads the ACC and is fourth in the nation in scoring offense, averaging an eye-popping 45.3 points per game.
Senior free safety Terrence Holt (6-2, 203) is perhaps the Pack's best defender. Holt has 35 tackles, fourth on the team, and made his first career interception this year. A first-team All-ACC performer in 2001, Holt has earned a reputation of having an uncanny knack for blocking kicks. Holt has blocked an amazing 12 kicks over his career to date, and now owns the ACC record for blocked kicks.
"He enjoys it," Amato said, "You have to remember when he was a redshirt freshman. He blocked a couple kicks out there at Texas and that was his plight in life and he took it serious. That earned him a scholarship."
The "Rover" back in the N.C. State defense (the strong safety in most defensive schemes) is sophomore Andre Maddox (6-0, 191) who leads the Pack in tackles with 44 hits, including 10 solo stops. Maddox also has one interception and one tackle for loss.
Sophomore Lamont Reid (6-0, 185) mans the left cornerback spot for the Pack, and has earned a reputation of his own on special teams. Reid is averaging an amazing 46.2 yards per kickoff return and has returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season.
At right corner, sophomore Marcus Hudson (6-1, 193) has picked off three passes in six games, and has 15 tackles including one tackle for loss.
"Thunder Dan," or rather senior middle linebacker Dantonio Burnette (5-10, 233), is one of the leaders of this Wolfpack team. The Pack's second leading tackler, Burnette is a career overachiever that has surprised Amato, who did not recruit Burnette when he was at Florida State.
"I was in Macon, Ga. last Monday talking to a touchdown group there and he grew up maybe 20 minutes away from there," Amato said this week of his senior leader. "I can remember him at the camp at Florida State. They asked why we didn't recruit him there. I said, 'Well look at him. He's 5-9, He weighs 230 pounds, he runs 5 flat in the 40, he can't jump, he's not quick.' They asked would I recruit him now? If I knew the way he plays now, yeah I'd recruit him. I tell you what, you can take all of those measurables and throw them out the window. When the ball is snapped and moving, he's 6-3, he runs 4.6, he's quick and he makes plays. His mental quickness and mental speed is much greater than his actual speed. Dan is smart, and his ‘want to' says he could have played anywhere in the country."
Burnette broke his thumb earlier this season, but is expected to play Saturday. Amato said, "Dantonio will be there, ready to go, chomping at the bits."
The outside linebacker spots are manned by sophomores Avery Gibson (6-2, 236) and Pat Thomas (6-1, 224). Two other linebackers, sophomore Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (6-1, 224) and true freshman Oliver Hoyte (6-3, 220) have played extensively and the Pack has good depth at the linebacker spots.
The defensive line features a quartet of seniors in Shawn Price (6-2, 235), Jerrick Hall (6-2, 285), Terrance Martin (6-3, 290), and Drew Winnsatt (6-4, 244).
The Pack is second in the ACC in pass defense, giving up only 156 yards per game, and seventh in rushing defense, yielding 142 yards per game. Those stats may paint an unrealistic picture of the Pack defense, because with the exception of Texas Tech, N.C. State has faced teams that primarily feature the running game.
Typically these reviews do not spend a great deal of time on special teams, but this week it may be the most interesting, and possibly outcome-determinative, phase of the game.
N.C. State has a knack of scoring on special teams, having recorded five touchdowns on special teams this year; two kickoff returns, a fumbled kickoff return, and two blocked punts. They also lead the league in kickoff returns.
North Carolina has done a solid job so far this season on special teams in terms of limiting returns. Nathan Vasher of Texas and Kelly Rhino of Georgia Tech both burned the Tar Heels badly last year on punt returns and went away empty-handed this season.
Tar Heel punter John Lafferty has never had a punt blocked in his career and in his brief stint as field goal kicker, neither has Dan Orner. If the Tar Heels can fight the Pack to a draw on special teams, limit returns, and avoid blocked kicks, their odds of winning this game improve significantly.
Though the special teams battle will be interesting to watch, the factor that will decide this contest is defense. Neither defense should be expected to dominate either offense, but the defense that does the best job of getting off the field will give their team a huge advantage in this game. That edge has to go to N.C. State coming in. Their defense has simply been more consistent and productive than the Tar Heel defense.
Bunting summed it up this way, "To be specific about the run game, we haven't stopped people cold, at all. People have run all over us."
N.C. State may, for one week, become a team that relies on the run. The Tar Heel passing attack is dangerous, and Amato and his staff may want to keep the ball on the ground more than is usual for them, shorten the game, and keep the Tar Heel defense on the field.
The Tar Heels have to hope that their offense can get on the scoreboard early and get a lead that might force N.C. State out of their game plan. For that to happen, the Heels with have to eliminate the costly pre-snap penalties that have plagued them thus far this season.
The Pack is favored by 6.5 points, and considering their national ranking and undefeated record, that is a bit lower than expected. It is a rivalry game, however and records and rankings usually don't carry as much weight in such contests.
It promises to one of the most exciting UNC-N.C. State games in memory. The rivalry between the two schools has seldom been hotter, and there is a lot on the line for both schools.
(Photos courtesy the Associated Press.)