Head-to-Head: UNC- N.C. State

What are the key battles to watch in Saturday's game against NC State? Inside Carolina takes a closer look at the five head-to-head matchups that will determine the outcome ...

1. UNC's Special Teams vs. NCSU's Special Teams

In any game between two evenly-matched opponents like North Carolina and N. C. State, special teams play a crucial role in determining the outcome. Oddly enough, these two units are eerily similar – both programs possess a Lou Groza Award candidate (UNC's Connor Barth and NCSU's Steven Hauschka), a dangerous return man (UNC's Brandon Tate, NCSU's Darrell Blackman) and sketchy kickoff coverage units (UNC ranks 115th nationally, NCSU ranks 86th).

Barth has been on fire for the Tar Heels over the past two seasons, connecting on 24 of his last 25 attempts. His leg provided North Carolina with 10 points in last weekend's 16-13 victory over Maryland, and he may be called upon again this Saturday in what should be a tightly-contested ball game. Davis believes his kicker's accuracy will give him a shot to compete professionally.

"He has got excellent precision, and I can tell you, without question, that is the No. 1 thing that all of those NFL coaches [are looking for]," head coach Butch Davis said.

Hauschka has been equally as impressive for the Pack, connecting on 14 of his 15 attempts this season, including the game winner in last weekend's 19-16 victory over Miami.

"We know he's a great kicker," head coach Tom O'Brien said following Saturday's win. "He gave us an opportunity… I said to the team if he gets 15 chances next week, we'll give him 15 chances."

Tate and Blackman both have the ability to spring a huge gain any time they touch the ball, as Tate leads the ACC with 150.7 all-purpose yards per game and Blackman ranks third with 142.6. Both athletes will be looking for seams to yield big plays against their opponents' lackluster kickoff coverage units on Saturday, but Blackman may have the edge in one area – UNC is allowing 10 yards per punt return this season, while N.C. State leads the nation in only giving up 2.7 yards per return.

2. UNC's Ground Game vs. NCSU's Run Defense

For a UNC rushing attack that has yet to put together a complete game, N.C. State's run defense appears to be offering the right prescription to what's ailing the Tar Heels. The Pack is surrendering huge chunks of yardage to its opponents this season to the tune of 204.3 yards per game – worst in the ACC by 36 yards.

O'Brien has talent up front in Preseason All-ACC defensive tackle Demario Pressley (22 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss in seven games) and defensive end Willie Young (31 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss), and this unit looked as though it may have turned the corner after shutting down East Carolina standout Chris Johnson, but that was before Miami grinded out 314 rushing yards last weekend.

North Carolina has continued with its running back by committee approach, but the number of tailbacks has slowly whittled down to two primary ball carriers – Johnny White (383 yards, 4.5 yards per carry) and Anthony Elzy (301 yards, 3.7 ypc). White gained 92 yards early against Maryland, and Elzy added 37 yards in the fourth quarter.

"Some of the things we wanted to do against Maryland we felt like [White] did well," Davis said. "… As [Maryland] adjusted, they changed what was going to work. We had to change the types and styles of runs. Anthony is maybe just a little bit stronger, a little bit more powerful. Obviously, Johnny is a little bit quicker and can get to the second level on certain runs with certain cuts."

There's no doubt that O'Brien knows the Tar Heels are salivating at facing his run defense, but the Pack defense has been effective in its bend-but-don't-break zone scheme, allowing only 26.3 points per game and limiting large gains. Offensive coordinator John Shoop has been creative in designing running plays for Tate, Greg Little and Brooks Foster, and those play calls may be the Tar Heels' best opportunities for big plays out of the backfield.

3. UNC's Defensive Line vs. NCSU's Offensive Line

N.C. State has limited its turnovers during the current three-game winning streak, and improved offensive line play has been essential in that development. Junior quarterback Daniel Evans (296.3 average passing yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions during that stretch) has had more time to go through his reads, and sophomore running back Jamelle Eugene is averaging 91.5 yards per game with a 4.2 yards per carry average over the last four ball games.

"They have a stable of running backs, great receivers, good offensive linemen, so we are going to have to attack them in a lot of different phases," UNC defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said. "A team that is so balanced has a lot to throw at you, so we are going to have to be prepared for a lot of different things. We are going to go out and execute the game plan and we'll see what happens."

Seniors Luke Lathan and Kalani Heppe anchor a Wolfpack offensive line that has suffered various injuries over the last month, but freshman left tackle Jake Vermiglio has been the surprising highlight for O'Brien upfront. But despite the recent improved play, the offensive line has still given up 19 tackles for loss and five sacks for a combined 130 yards during this winning streak.

The numbers provide an opportunity for the Tar Heel front four, which has been the key cog in North Carolina's defensive turnaround this season. UNC has held four of its last five opponents to under 302 yards of total offense, while accumulating 32 tackles for loss and 16 sacks during that stretch. Balmer (47 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss) and defensive end Hilee Taylor (37 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks) headline that group, while defensive end E.J. Wilson (29 tackles, seven tackles for loss) and defensive tackle Marvin Austin (21 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) have supplied plenty of support.

Getting pressure on Evans will be imperative in forcing the Wolfpack to return to its early-season form of committing rampant turnovers, and decorating the quarterback's jersey with grass stains will force mental errors from the Raleigh, N.C. native.

"Eventually he's going to feel it, and he's going to start wanting to move and he'll get uncomfortable in the pocket and that's what you want," Balmer said.

4. UNC's T.J. Yates vs. NCSU's Secondary

T.J. Yates exploded onto the collegiate scene with nine touchdown passes and only one interception through his first three ball games, but things have settled down over the last six games with the red-shirt freshman currently sitting on 2,056 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

"Early in the season, I don't think many people knew we were going to be chucking the ball deep as much as we did," Yates said. "Teams kind of caught on, got smart, started backing off a little bit. I think we've had some chances in the past few games – we've just got to hit them. Earlier in the season we were hitting them every single 'shot play' we took. We've just got to keep working on it, because they're there."

But Yates has been more effective over the last 10 quarters, throwing 606 yards and three touchdowns while completing 66 percent of his passes. He managed the second half of the South Carolina game nearly flawlessly, and led the offense on several time-consuming drives to hold off a late Maryland rally last week.

"I think the quarterback is playing well for [Davis]," O'Brien said. "I think he said of him some point in the spring that he picked up things quicker than his quarterbacks at the Browns did. He's been managing their offense well."

Yates will need another strong performance on Saturday, as the Wolfpack ranks 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense, despite the glaring holes in the run defense department.

Free safety Dajuan Morgan (71 tackles, two tackles for loss) leads a secondary that must find a way to overcome the loss of strong safety Javon Walker (38 tackles) to a knee injury, who will be replaced by junior walk-on Robbie Leonard in the starting lineup.

"That's a tough loss for us because after we came out of the [bye week] we played three games and were in a pretty good rhythm," O'Brien said. "Once again, it's a tough break for Javon but it's an opportunity for Robbie to step in and play. We're confident he will play well and get the job done for us."

5. UNC's Butch Davis vs. NCSU's Tom O'Brien

John Bunting and Chuck Amato traded barbs and jabs for six long years in the Triangle, adding fuel to this rivalry's fire. Bunting earned the last laugh before both men were fired last fall, posting a 23-9 victory in their final meeting and pushing his record against Amato to 4-2, including the current three-game winning streak.

Enter Butch Davis and Tom O'Brien. Both are considered vast upgrades over the predecessors, but the lingering effects of the Bunting-Amato era have played a role in their approach to this weekend's rivalry game. Mike O'Cain and Amato were a combined 3-11 against North Carolina – a fact that O'Brien heard about constantly during his offseason alumni gatherings.

"I know we've only won three of the last 14 games," O'Brien said. "Since '93, there's only been three victories. And when you look at the overall record, we're down 35 [victories], so we've got a lot of ground to make up."

The importance of this game is monumental for a variety of reasons to both coaches, but O'Brien could wipe away any lingering doubts about his hire in the NCSU fan base with a win against UNC.

"Whether we lost by one point or 30 points is not that big of a deal..," Evans said. "It's just a matter of losing to Carolina. I've heard people say we could go 1-11 and beat Carolina and people around here are going to be happy."

The pressure to win has escalated during the Wolfpack's three-game winning streak as N.C. State is now favored to beat a team that owns a 25-11-4 record against them in Raleigh.

But while O'Brien may feel a little extra weight around his neck this weekend, Davis refuses to approach this matchup any differently than the previous nine ball games.

"I don't buy into the idea that you're going to play lights out in a feverish, slobbering pitch for one team, [and] then what about the other 11?" Davis said. "Why does that one team deserve any more attention?"

In what has become a consistent theme for Davis this season, the Tar Heels will face a mature Wolfpack depth chart compared to what UNC will bring into Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday. N.C. State will start 15 upperclassmen in this rivalry's 97th meeting, nearly double the number of veterans starting for UNC (8).

But Barth, Balmer, Taylor, Durell Mapp and reserve linebacker Martel Thatch have not lost to their bitter rivals during their collegiate career, and Davis would like nothing more than to send his seniors out with a 4-0 record against N.C. State.

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