Wolfpack aim for third straight win over Tar Heels
Mercifully, the 2018 season will end for Larry Fedora when North Carolina hosts NC State this Saturday. After a 3-9 disaster in 2017, Fedora's summertime CTE comments and a 2-8 record have made 2018 a nightmare as well.
At 7-3, the Wolfpack season has been more successful, but there is a twinge of what could have been. Clemson beat 5-0 NC State, but the losses to Syracuse and especially Wake Forest were what eliminated the Pack from New Year’s Six Bowl consideration.
NC State has beaten UNC in eight of the last 11 meetings, but the Heels have a 66-35-6 advantage in the all-time series.
NC State at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 12:20 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: NC State -6
Three Things to Watch
1. The Ryan Finley-to-Kelvin Harmon regular-season finale
Finley came to Raleigh by way of Boise State and established himself as the starter right away. In his three seasons under Dave Doeren, Finley has climbed the Wolfpack passing ranks to where he is No. 2 in career passing yardage behind Philip Rivers and has the highest completion percentage in school history. For the past two seasons, his favorite target has been Kelvin Harmon. Much like Finley, the junior may be playing his final regular-season game, as the NFL likes productive, 6-foot-3 receivers. So Pack fans, savor every last snap that remains for your two stars this season.
2. UNC defending Finley and Harmon
The Heels run defense woes have been well documented, but in recent weeks they have had trouble in pass coverage as well. Virginia’s Bryce Perkins had a solid performance against North Carolina in late October, completing 18-of-27 passes with three touchdowns, Duke’s Daniel Jones lit them up for 361 yards and three more scores, and last week Western Carolina’s Tyrie Adams passed for 290, although much of that did come in the second half when the game was in hand. Still, there have been leaks on the back end of the Carolina defense, and Finley, Harmon and the other Wolfpack skill players are adept at taking advantage of opportunities.
3. The Carolina offensive line
Over the past two weeks, the UNC running game has shown improvement. It was against Western Carolina, but the Heels did have 296 yards on the ground last week. Seven days earlier, they piled up 315 rushing yards in the loss to Duke. The yards have come from a combination of Jordon Brown, Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, meaning it’s probably less about the runner and more about the line. The blockers have also allowed just nine sacks all season, good for a tie for seventh nationally. The Pack defense is second in the ACC behind Clemson in rush defense, and they are third in the league in sacks, so the Heels’ offensive front will have a major challenge this weekend.
North Carolina is 2-8, but the Tar Heels have been competitive in each of their last six games. After getting blown out by Miami on September 27, UNC lost its next five games by 33 total points before beating Western Carolina last week. So there is still fight in the Heels, and they will give the Wolfpack a battle to close the campaign. But the matchups are in NC State’s favor. The slipping pass defense plays right into Finley’s hands, and the Pack can control the Carolina ground game and harass quarterback Nathan Elliott. Fedora’s season — and perhaps his stint in Chapel Hill — will end with another loss.
Prediction: NC State 31, North Carolina 20
— 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.