Raleigh, N.C. — So far so good for NC State’s bid to play in the ACC Championship Game despite losing to Atlantic Division leader Wake Forest. The Wolfpack whipped Syracuse with an outstanding game from the Thomas brothers.
Meanwhile, Clemson, also in the hunt to become the division designee opposite the Pitt Panthers, absolutely ran all over the defense challenged Deacons. Wake can still win the Atlantic outright with a win Saturday at Chestnut Hill. But which Boston College team will show up-the one that went through the motions in a lackluster first half against Florida State or the one that rallied from a 19-3 deficit in the second half to nearly win the game? Certainly with Phil Jurkovec back at quarterback this is a game the Eagles could win, though please note I said could.
For that Saturday game to mean anything in these parts, NC State must first win Friday against a certain team from the west side of the Triangle. And North Carolina is playing for a trip to Charlotte, too. Not as Coastal Champion of course. That’s long gone. But the Tar Heels became bowl eligible in their workmanlike win over Wofford. The Duke’s Mayo Bowl in Charlotte is one of the possible postseason landing spots for Mack Brown’s bunch. A win over the nationally ranked Wolfpack would make the Tar Heels a more attractive bowl candidate.
How we got here
UNC (6-5, 3-4 ACC)
The Tar Heels’ star crossed season began in Blacksburg, where a highly energized crowd inspired Virginia Tech to monopolize the football and pressure Sam Howell into sacks and mistakes. Carolina then beat Georgia State and played an outstanding second half to rally past Virginia. But that would be this preseason Top 10 Team’s only winning streak. Inexplicable losses to underdogs Georgia Tech and Florida State bookended one victory over lowly Duke. A narrow escape at home against Miami was followed by a competitive loss at Notre Dame. UNC bounced back to upset Wake Forest in Kenan Stadium-the highlight of this team’s season. But the Tar Heels could not summon the same magic on the road at Pitt and fell to 5-5 on the season. Saturday’s thumping of1-9 Wofford closed out a home schedule that produced six wins against one defeat. But UNC has yet to win on the road this season.
NC State (8-3, 5-2)
Apart from a Week 2 loss at Mississippi State – which actually looks a bit better now thanks to Bulldogs’ wins over Texas A&M, Kentucky and Auburn – NC State put together a strong early season. The Wolfpack routed South Florida and Furman, then knocked off perennial ACC kingpin Clemson in overtime at the Carter. State also held off explosive Louisiana Tech, then throttled Boston College on the road-the Eagles at that point were without Jurkovec. However, the back half of State’s two long road trips did not go so well. Miami handed Dave Doeren’s charges their first ACC defeat. NC State pretty much shut down explosive Louisville at home and then took care of Florida State in Tallahassee. But the Wolfpack could not contain wide open Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Saturday’s 41-17 pounding of Syracuse leaves NC State 8-3 overall, 5-2 in the ACC, 5-1 in the Atlantic Division, and 6-0 at home.
North Carolina leads the series 68-36 with six ties. UNC dominated the early years, when these two programs were known as the White Phantoms and the Red Terrors. Through the end of the Korean War in 1953, NC State had won just 5 of the first 43 meetings, though there were 6 ties. Things changed in West Raleigh with the hiring of Earl Edwards in 1954.
Edwards’ Wolfpack teams won three straight against the Tar Heels from 1956-1958 and again from 1967-1969. Edwards retired in 1970 with a 9-9 record against NC State’s biggest rival, which was pretty heady stuff at the time.
Both Lou Holtz and Bo Rein went .500 against UNC in the 70’s-good marks considering the success of Bill Dooley at UNC in those days. The Tar Heels, under Dick Crum, did win seven straight between 1979 and 1985.
Enter Dick Sheridan. Though a native of South Carolina, Sheridan immediately grasped the importance of beating the guys from Chapel Hill. Sheridan won six of seven against UNC, going 5-0 against teams coached by the young Mack Brown.
Sheridan quit coaching for health reasons in 1993, and soon after that, Brown’s teams became nationally ranked. UNC won the last five meetings in Brown’s first tour of duty.
After Mike O’Cain’s struggles against UNC—no wins and seven losses—NC State turned to alumnus Chuck Amato, who had been a star linebacker for the Wolfpack under Earl Edwards. Amato won three of the first four against Carolina but ultimately finished 3-4. UNC in those years was coached by its own alumnus linebacker, John Bunting.
Tom O’Brien left Boston College to follow Amato at NC State in 2007. TOB nearly matched Sheridan, winning five times in six years. Of course, he did have Russell Wilson at quarterback during many of those wins.
Dave Doeren took the helm in 2013. Doeren’s teams won four of the first six, including three straight from 2016-2018.
Since Brown’s return to UNC, the Tar Heels have gone 2-0 in the series, routing the Wolfpack 41-10 at Carter-Finley Stadium in 2019, then outscoring State last year 47-34 in Chapel Hill, though I would note that was the Wolfpack’s first game after losing Devin Leary with a broken leg.
Doeren is now 4-4 against UNC headed into his most important rivalry game yet.
Brown in his two-tiered career is 7-5 against NC State and has not lost to the Wolfpack since 1992.
For UNC, Howell is key
Rushing: North Carolina ranks fourth in conference only play running the football. Sam Howell is a big part of this. Howell, who averages 60 yards per game even after his considerable sack yardage is deducted, can be a threat whether he keeps the ball on the zone read, scrambles out of the pocket on a pass play, or takes off on a called quarterback run. Howell gets plenty of help from Ty Chandler, who is averaging 82 yards per game and 5.4 yards per carry.
Passing: UNC gets 256 yards per game through the air, to balance the 183 yards it gains on the ground. Howell completes 60% of his passes. He has thrown seven interceptions but when he has time to throw he can be very effective, especially connecting with Josh Downs, the ACC’s leading receiver with 60 catches in conference games. Howell has thrown 17 touchdown passes.
Red Zone Defense: Apart from shutting down Kenny Pickett and company in the second half of the overtime loss at Pitt, this has not been a good season for the UNC defense. But Carolina has defended well in the red zone. The Tar Heels have allowed just 17 touchdowns in 32 red zone visits, along with seven field goals. Eight times opponents have come away empty. UNC’s red zone mark of 75% is #2 in conference play.
State’s Leary leads ACC in pass efficiency
Passing Efficiency: Behind Devin Leary, NC State leads the ACC in this category. Leary completes almost 66% of his passes with 23 touchdowns against just three interceptions-a rating of 161. Leary gets great protection; NC State ranks second in fewest sacks allowed. And Leary has multiple receiving threats. Emeka Emezie, Thayer Thomas, and Devin Carter all rank among the league’s top receivers. And don’t sleep on the hybrid tight ends, Trent Pennix and Chris Toudle.
Time of Possession: NC State’s average time of possession is 32:06. That ranks #1 in conference only games. This Wolfpack team ranks just seventh in third down conversions at 38%, perhaps due to issues in the running game which I’ll address later. But NC State passes the ball well enough at key times to avoid punting.
Kicking: When the Wolfpack needs to punt, however, Trenton Gill is the ACC’s best. He averages 46 yards per boot. As for returns, Bam Knight all at once has become the ACC’s most dangerous kick return specialist. Knight has taken two kickoffs back all the way for touchdowns and averages 41 yards per return.
Defense: NC State either leads or is near the top in virtually every statistical category. The Wolfpack ranks #2 in scoring defense, just behind Clemson, allowing 21 points per game in ACC play. The Pack is #3 in rushing defense, #2 in pass defense, and #1 in total defense, allowing just 324 yards per game. NC State excels at getting off the field, with a league high 14 interceptions and a third down defensive conversion rate of 32%.
UNC must protect Howell in the pocket
Sacks Allowed: Although both Mack Brown and Sam Howell vowed in preseason that UNC’s sack problem would get better in 2021, the Tar Heels still rank last in this category. Howell has been taken down 30 times for losses of 189 yards. And it’s not just the sacks that are the problem but the pressure being generated by opposing teams. Howell has been hurried into poor throws and even interceptions; not to mention that he gets hit soon after the release of many of his throws. UNC’s poor pass protection is a leading reason why this UNC offense, which can be very explosive at times, is so inconsistent. And I would add, NC State is among the best at pressuring the passer.
Defense: UNC ranks 10th in the ACC, allowing 30 points per game. The Tar Heels get third down stops just 45% of the time, 13th in the league. UNC is, surprisingly, fifth best in the league against the run and seventh best against the pass. But since the Heels have trouble getting off the field they often wear down. UNC is just ninth in total defense allowing 403 yards per game.
Kickoff returns: In an effort to create some spark for this 6-5 team, UNC’s return men have begun running some kicks back instead of taking the touchback as they did earlier in the season. It hasn’t worked out that well. Last week Ja’Qurious Conley, one of UNC’s most important defenders, tore up his knee when he decided to run out the opening kickoff. He is lost for the season. Not all kickoff returns have been that catastrophic for the Tar Heels, but they’re only averaging 16 yards per try. Of course, with a touchback or a fair catch, you get the ball at the 25. Do the math.
Fourth Down Conversions: In a rivalry game like this, no stat is too obscure. UNC has gambled on fourth down a whopping 12 times, and converted just four. The Tar Heels’ 33% fourth down conversion rate is the worst in the ACC.
NC State must hold the line in red zone
Red Zone Defense: Good as NC State’s defense is over the entire football field, opponents who reach the red zone usually score. NC State has allowed 12 touchdowns and two field goals in 17 red zone visits. The Wolfpack benefited from two missed field goals and made one stop on downs, but everyone else scored. Overall the Pack ranks near the bottom of the league in this category.
Rushing: In conference play, NC State rushes for just 98 yards per game. That’s the lowest in the league, and even more troubling, the average gain per run in conference play is just 3.2. However, NC State’s rush average for all games is better than 4.0. The stats are a bit curious as Ricky Person is averaging 4.1 yards per carry in ACC games and Bam Knight, who has a career rush average at NC State of 5.1, is still generating 3.6 per carry against conference foes this year. They are the two ball carriers and Devin Leary rarely runs. Negative yards aren’t a huge issue as Leary has taken just 13 sacks for 97 yards (less than half of Howell’s numbers). Yet NC State’s rushing numbers have dropped of late. One thing is clear, offensive coordinator Tim Beck believes the Wolfpack can get big yards more easily passing, given the quality of NC State’s receivers and Leary’s skill. He’s certainly right about the explosiveness of State’s passing attack and this approach generally works. Still, State’s lack of run-pass balance against Wake Forest in my opinion played a part in the outcome of that game. Also I would note, in the second quarter against Syracuse, Person pick up a first down on back to back runs. Those runs set up Leary’s play action pass to Thayer Thomas for a big gain. Person then ran the ball in for a touchdown from 15 yards out. NC State can run after all! At times.
Howell’s presence, Wolfpack fans provide intangibles
One would presume this is Sam Howell’s last game in a Carolina uniform. However, I wouldn’t be completely surprised if the shoulder injury that he suffered late in the game at Pitt keeps him on the sideline Friday night as it did last Saturday against Wofford. Certainly, I can’t imagine Howell, a projected first round NFL Draft Pick as a junior, playing in any bowl game. Anyway, assuming Howell plays, what kind of performance will he turn in? Already the greatest quarterback in UNC history statistically, there is little for Howell still to prove as an individual. But Howell as the leader of a team expected to win the Coastal title, which only achieved bowl eligibility last week, has plenty to prove. Even in this underachieving season, Howell and the offense have been streaky good: Virginia, Duke, Miami, Notre Dame at times, and the second half at Pitt. Will Howell and company hit on some big plays at NC State? Or will their drives stall because of protection problems and penalties.
Speaking of penalties, that’s another intangible. These are the two most penalized teams in ACC games. UNC commits an average of 77 yards per game. NC State gets penalized at an 80 yard per game clip. Which team demonstrates the discipline to keep the officials’ flags in their pockets? That could influence the outcome.
My next intangible is the setting. NC State plays extremely well in front of its typically robust crowd. The Wolfpack is undefeated at home this season. Also, UNC has yet to win on the road.
The stats suggest NC State is the more well-rounded team and certainly the more consistent team. I can see the Wolfpack pulling away over time and winning by a comfortable margin, two or possibly even three touchdowns. But if the game is close, then what?
How NC State responds to the pressure of the moment is the greatest intangible. This team, with a win Friday and some luck Saturday has a chance to play for the school’s first ACC title since 1979. If the Wolfpack can play like it did last week, all is well. But if UNC stays close, that’s a different story. The Tar Heels should be relaxed and carefree. All that’s at stake for them Friday night at the Carter are pride and the question of which December bowl they play in. NC State, meanwhile, has a chance, not only to go to Charlotte, but if all the dominoes fall just right, a chance to duplicate the 11 win season by the Philip Rivers Wolfpack of 2002. But it all depends on Friday night, and a BC win over Wake Saturday.
If I’m NC State in such a high stakes game, I do not want Sam Howell to get the ball for a final drive in a one score game. But hey, for those of us not playing, it’s going to be fun to watch.