It's not like a game between the NC State Wolfpack and North Carolina Tar Heels needs more juice, but this week's contest is a little more special just because of the ACC standings. Not only are both teams currently ranked, but with one loss apiece, both the Wolfpack and the Tar Heels are in the race for a spot in the conference title game. But a second loss, especially to a team also in contention, would be very damaging.
NC State rides a three-game winning streak into Chapel Hill with victories at Pittsburgh and Virginia and at home versus Duke. UNC is looking to rebound after falling for the first time in 2020, at Florida State due to an ugly first-half performance.
In a series that began in 1894, Carolina leads 67-36-6 and drubbed the Pack 41-10 last year in Raleigh to snap a three-game losing streak in the rivalry.
No. 23 NC State at No. 14 North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -17
When NC State Has the Ball
The Wolfpack suffered a major blow when quarterback Devin Leary broke his fibula in the victory over Duke. Leary had been coming into his own as a sophomore, throwing eight touchdown passes to two interceptions and averaging more than eight yards per pass attempt. The good news is that Bailey Hockman is an experienced signal-caller. The bad news is that his results have not been nearly as good as Leary's with three touchdowns and seven interceptions in his career.
The Leary injury will put more pressure on Ricky Person, Zonovan "Bam" Knight, and the NC State running game. Both running backs are more than capable, but so far this season the Pack is averaging just 151.4 rushing yards per game, which places them 11th in the ACC. The backs will need help up front from an experienced group of blockers that must take a step forward with Leary out.
Hockman and Co. will be attempting to move the ball against a Carolina defense that for the most part has been pretty solid on the season. But after giving up 45 points in the win over Virginia Tech, the Heels surrendered 31 in the first half against Florida State. Jay Bateman's defense came with a renewed vigor in the second half and clamped things down, but by that point, it was too much of a hill for the offense to climb.
In both the Virginia Tech and Florida State games, quarterback runs hurt the Heels. Hockman shouldn't pose the same threat this week, allowing the Heels the opportunity to control a conventional running game and then attack the quarterback in passing situations.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
As maddening as the Heels' defense has been, the offense has been even more perplexing. Outside of the 56-point explosion against Virginia Tech, UNC has averaged 28.3 points in the other three games. That's not enough considering the competition played and the talent on the roster. Last Saturday night was a perfect example. Carolina ran for 150 yards in the first half... and had just seven points.
Sam Howell had one completion of more than 15 yards in the half, and that was a reception that Beau Corrales took 20 yards after the catch. In the second half, out of necessity at being down 31-7, Howell and the Heels took shots downfield, especially to Corrales, and had success. But due to the score, away went the running game. For Carolina to truly thrive on offense, there has to be a balance, and the personnel is such that that should be achievable.
NC State has done a better job defending the run than the pass this year, but the Wolfpack's three most recent opponents (Pittsburgh, Virginia, and Duke) aren't strong running teams. Where the Wolfpack defense has been successful is getting off the field on third down and creating negative plays. They have five defenders with at least four tackles for lost yardage already this year. Linebackers Payton Wilson, Isaiah Moore, and Drake Thomas have combined for 123 total stops, 15 of which have resulted in lost yardage. The Carolina line has protected Howell pretty well and has limited negative plays, something that must continue this week.
North Carolina had been sleepwalking through the early part of the season. Wins over Syracuse and Boston College weren't all that impressive and could be brushed off due to their extended layoff after having their scheduled game against Charlotte canceled due to COVID-19 issues. Then excitement built after the offensive explosion versus Virginia Tech, even though the defense gave up 45 points. Perhaps at halftime at Florida State, down 31-7, something clicked. At least that's what head coach Mack Brown is hoping. I think we see more of that team this week. The defense will contain NC State's rushing attack and send heat at Bailey Hockman while the offense will have a nice balance of run and pass. The Devin Leary injury will be a huge factor, and the Tar Heels will roll to an easy victory at home.
Prediction: North Carolina 38, NC State 17
Podcast: Week 8 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.