N.C. State comes to Chapel Hill for Saturday afternoon's game against arch-rival UNC looking to make history, as a Wolfpack victory would mark the first time ever that NCSU has beaten North Carolina six straight times.
NCSU (5-2, 2-1 ACC) controls their own destiny in the ACC Atlantic Division, while UNC (5-3, 2-2 ACC) looks to overcome a shocking loss in another local rivalry game last week against Duke.
Saturday is the 102nd matchup on the gridiron between UNC and NCSU, with the Tar Heels holding a sizable 63-32-6 overall advantage.
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But NCSU has been the clear dominant team in the recent rivalry, and a win on Saturday would mark the first time in two decades that NCSU would have beaten Carolina three straight times in Kenan Stadium.
Kickoff is scheduled for approximately 12:30 pm on the ACC Network.
In our weekly '10 Keys' feature, check out what in our opinion will make the biggest difference for the Tar Heels in their hopes of getting this large monkey off their backs.
Naturally it's important for UNC to bring a certain amount of passion and intensity to this huge rivalry battle, but they have to play within themselves and figure out a way to contain the burning fire within them. N.C. State has brought plenty of passion to this game in recent years of course, but they've been the more disciplined and more controlled team, and it's made a difference.
The term 'calm ferocity' might sound like an oxymoron, but for UNC it's essential that they play with a controlled aggression Saturday against State. By that we mean be physical and crack the pads, but don't do it after the whistle. Make your presence felt along the line of scrimmage without holding, clipping, or getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. On defense, attack and swarm the NCSU ball carriers and quarterback Mike Glennon without committing penalties like 'horse collar,' 'face mask,' or roughing the passer. Don't start or pick a fight and get yourself thrown out of the ball game.
Last week UNC brought enough aggression against Duke to win the game, but it wasn't controlled aggression. Linebacker Kevin Reddick committed a devastating roughing the passer penalty that negated what would have been a huge field position-flipping interception by Darien Rankin. How many other times did UNC send a ferocious blitz, only to watch Duke dump the ball underneath for a huge gainer? And how about the play that got Shakeel Rashad suspended? Say all you want about the play in which Tim Jackson got hurt by a Duke lineman, but Rashad's play was indicative of a player---and a defense as a whole---that wasn't able to contain its aggression and use it to its advantage. Carolina can't afford to have a bunch of similar lapses against the Wolfpack.
MAKE A PICK
Carolina and NCSU are two of the best in the ACC when it comes to interceptions, with UNC leading the league with 11 picks, and State right behind them with nine. It figures that there will be some interceptions in this one given the respective defensive averages. Turnovers have made a huge difference in a couple of the closer games played between these two teams in recent years, and for Carolina to win what might be another nip-and-tuck affair on Saturday, they need to be on the right side of the turnover margin. In order to do that, they'll have to snag at least one or two passes from Glennon.
While he's leading the ACC in passing yards per game coming in (284.0 ypg), he's also thrown seven interceptions, which should give UNC hope that they can force some this week. Glennon has just one interception in NCSU's victories, but six of his seven picks came in the two losses to Miami and Tennessee. That's not just a coincidence. The Volunteers and Hurricanes were able to get a sustained pass rush on Glennon that forced him into some decisions that were hurried and unorthodox. UNC needs to do the same.
If Glennon manages to get through this game without an interception it seems that UNC won't have nearly as much of a chance to turn the field position in their favor. It's more likely NCSU will be able to extend drives and put themselves in scoring position if the Tar Heels can't force them into a couple turnovers.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO AIR IT
While UNC clearly wants to establish the run and win the line of scrimmage against the Wolfpack, they can't forget about the potency of the Tar Heel passing attack. NCSU ranks next-to-last in the ACC in pass defense, allowing 266.7 passing yards per game, and they're dead-last in the ACC in pass defense efficiency, as opposing quarterbacks have a 137.6 efficiency rating against them.
Sure, the Wolfpack has David Amerson, a likely future pro and one of the top safeties in the nation when he's playing well. And certainly Amerson will be ready to play on Saturday. But he and the others in the NCSU secondary have been burned at different points by a bunch of different offenses this fall, including Tennessee and Miami in particular. For UNC to have its best chance of winning, they need to challenge NCSU's defensive backs and work the ball downfield. Quinshad Davis needs to get himself open and stretch out his defender. Erik Highsmith needs to play well in his last chance against the Wolfpack. Sean Tapley needs to build on some of the solid performances he's had in recent weeks and get back in the end zone.
And quarterback Bryn Renner needs to play more like the fourth quarter Renner from the Duke game instead of the Renner from the first three quarters. The biggest thing as UNC looks to throw the ball against NCSU is don't turn it over. If Carolina can have a successful passing day with one or fewer interceptions, it could flip the momentum substantially in Carolina's direction.
No. 26 for the Tar Heels deserves his own category, because in recent weeks its become abundantly clear that as Giovani Bernard goes, so does the Tar Heel offense. Bernard put together another 200-plus all-purpose yard game last week against the Blue Devils, and he'll need a similar output against the Wolfpack for UNC to have its best chance of winning.
Bernard has the full respect of the NCSU defense, and he's not going to sneak up on anybody on Saturday. But will that be enough, simply knowing that he's coming at you? Surely Virginia Tech, Miami, and Duke knew they were going to see a lot of Bernard, and he ran through all of them. The ACC's leading rusher by more than 100 yards right now at 795 yards, Bernard is the go-to-guy that the Tar Heels have to depend on. His ability to create something out of nothing, as well as his ability to use space to create big plays, is something N.C. State cannot underestimate. On the ground and through the air, Bernard is the guy who can make the biggest difference for the Tar Heels.
WIN THE LINE OFFENSIVELY
One of the recurring themes in N.C. State's recent winning streak in the UNC series has been their ability to seize the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, assuming the ability to run while taking away Carolina's ability to run. That was never more evident than last season in Raleigh, when the Wolfpack shut out UNC for the first and only time under former offensive coordinator John Shoop.
This time around, UNC's offensive line, which has been the biggest strength of the football team this season, needs to assert itself against a NCSU defensive line that has been solid this fall. NCSU has an ACC-leading 22 sacks through seven games, while the Tar Heels have allowed just five sacks in eight contests, which easily leads the ACC.
With Brennan Williams ruled out of the game for the Tar Heels, Landon Turner steps into the starting lineup at right guard while Travis Bond moves outside to right tackle. Both players, along with fellow starters James Hurst, Jonathan Cooper, and Russell Bodine, need to have another big outing Saturday. If Carolina's offensive line assumes the line of scrimmage and there's holes for Bernard and time for Renner to throw, UNC could be in line for a big offensive day. Of course the opposite is true if UNC can't win the line.
FINISH IN THE RED ZONE
This is a painful thing for Tar Heel fans to read, but the bottom line is that if UNC had been more consistent finishing off drives in the red zone, Carolina could be undefeated right now. They blew opportunities in all three losses to Wake Forest, Duke, and Louisville to score second half touchdowns deep in opposing territory, and scoring touchdowns on even one of those many red zone possessions in each of those games could have led to a UNC triumph.
Nobody in the ACC with exception of Florida State has been in the red zone more often than Carolina has this fall, but with just 25 touchdowns in 43 red zone opportunities, one can easily see how many points the Tar Heels have left on the field.
An opportunity for vindication lies against the Wolfpack, who are currently tied for second with Virginia Tech in the ACC in red zone defense. NCSU is allowing opposing teams to score 75 percent of the time it gets into the red zone (15 scores in 20 chances), but even more impressive is the fact that teams are scoring touchdowns just half of the time they get into NCSU's red zone (10 touchdowns in 20 chances). UNC on the whole is letting teams score 88 percent of the time in the red zone (22 scores in 25 chances), along with 14 touchdowns.
On paper the red zone stats appear to favor N.C. State but for Carolina it's pretty simple. When you get inside NCSU's 20-yard line, finish the job. Drive across the goal line. Don't settle for field goals. Settling for field goals is a recipe for another tough loss. UNC can't trade field goals for touchdowns. That math doesn't work.
GET BACK TO STOPPING RUN
Before last week's stunning defensive meltdown against Duke, UNC was doing a nice job shutting down the run, as opposing teams were rushing for less than 100 yards a game. That's of course not the case now, as after the Duke game, UNC's defensive rushing allowance jumped all the way up to an average of 116.5 yards per game.
N.C. State is averaging 130.3 rushing yards per outing, with a committee of guys doing the work. Tony Creecy and Shadrach Thornton are the two guys that UNC will have to keep the biggest eye on in the NCSU running game. The two players have combined for 601 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground this fall. Creecy is also a considerable threat in the NCSU passing game, with 19 receptions on the season for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Carolina's weekly goal on defense is to make the opposing team one-dimensional, and against an NCSU offense that really thrives when its playing balanced, it's especially important. Teams that have forced Glennon into more high-pressure throwing situations have had more success forcing turnovers. And that was a product of largely taking away State's running game. If State runs the ball like Duke did, a similar result is likely for the Tar Heels. But if UNC slows down State's running game and forces Glennon to beat them with his arm, the odds go up for the Tar Heels.
ALL OVER UNDERWOOD
Bryan Underwood has emerged into a big-time threat in the State passing game this year, as he's caught more touchdown passes (8) than the rest of NCSU's roster combined. State has 14 different players who have caught at least one pass in a game this fall, but those other 13 players aside of Underwood have combined for six touchdowns to Underwood's eight. Underwood has just 22 catches, which ranks behind Quintin Payton's 29 catches for second on the team, but he's finding the end zone more than a third of the time he makes a catch.
For UNC, coming off a game in which Conner Vernon, Jamison Crowder and the Duke passing game exposed many of their vulnerabilities, this week's challenge is to figure out a way to keep Underwood out of the end zone. It's a task that's much easier said than done, as Underwood is a dynamic guy who plays bigger at times than his 5-11 height would suggest. He's a playmaker, and clearly he steps it up when State is around the goal line. UNC needs to handle him and his ability to find the end zone if they're to keep the Wolfpack from dominating the game through the air.
AVOID THE BIG RETURN
The last time NCSU came to Kenan Stadium, veteran return man T.J. Graham had arguably the play of the game, a long punt return touchdown that proved vital in State's 29-25 triumph. Carolina has been a lot better on special teams---and especially in coverage---in Year One of the Fedora Era than they were for much of the Butch Davis Era. The Davis Era was plagued by huge returns such as the one Graham got, and big returns other teams like LSU and Wake Forest produced over the years. State currently has two players (Tobais Palmer and C.J. Wilson) averaging over 20 yards a kickoff return, and Palmer has a 50-yarder this fall.
NCSU hasn't been phenomenal on punt returns, but Rashard Smith did break off a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown against The Citadel, so the potential is there.
Perhaps no one single thing can hurt UNC's chances for momentum and sustained progress in this game more than to allow State a big kickoff or punt return. And in turn, few things would ignite UNC and get the offense rolling better than getting a big punt block. It was a huge punt block that turned the tide against Louisville, and while obviously UNC doesn't want to dig the hole they dug against the Cardinals, the point is that avoiding big kick returns, while possibly pulling off a block, can make life a lot easier against the 'Pack.
KNOW THE STAKES
It can be argued that during the Butch Davis Era, UNC didn't fully grasp what this rivalry means to so many people throughout the state of North Carolina. Davis never made a big deal out of the NCSU matchup, and as a result his teams often seemed listless and unprepared emotionally to take on a team that was clearly more ready to play.
Larry Fedora, at least symbolically, seems to get this rivalry a lot more than Davis did. He took the time to adorn the UNC locker room with Wolfpack red before the team convened this past Sunday to start NCSU week preparations. He talked a little trash about NCSU on the spring Ram's Club circuit, saying he didn't want to legitimize State's program by spending excessive time talking about them. They made a point to highlight State on the preseason preview film above all other opponents.
At least on the surface, Fedora appears to know the stakes of this game.
For the UNC players, many of which are heading into the last game of their lives against N.C. State, the line in the sand should be pretty clear. There's no bowl game for the Tar Heels. There's an 0-2 record against in-state ACC teams with the losses to Wake Forest and Duke. There's no ACC championship game to play, even if the Tar Heels ran the table. Simply put, this team is running out of tangible goals. The state championship won't happen. Sitting atop the ACC Coastal Division can't happen if another loss to N.C. State happens. Winning this game is the single-biggest goal this 2012 North Carolina football team can attain. Winning this game can quickly make UNC fans forget about last week's inexplicable setback to Duke. Winning this game can give everyone who loves the Tar Heels a warm and fuzzy feeling that will last well into winter.
On the flipside, another loss to the Wolfpack can send this program into free fall, as last year's loss seemed to do. The crowds at the final two regular season games against Georgia Tech and Maryland might really be sparse if apathy sets in even more than it already has, and nothing will arguably create more apathy in the remainder of UNC's football season than a sixth straight loss to N.C. State. And while the UNC players can't necessarily worry about the size of a crowd, they need to understand that if they lose another game to NCSU, a lot of people will likely check out once and for all this season, whether it's fair or unfair.