When NC State fell to Wake Forest two weeks ago, its hopes for the ACC Atlantic Division championship appeared to be dashed. But just a few days later, thanks to Clemson's defeat of the Demon Deacons last Saturday, the Wolfpack (8-3, 5-2 ACC) were given some hope. They will need help from Boston College, who needs to knock off Wake this weekend, but if that happens, NC State could find itself in a three-way tie with Wake Forest and Clemson. And the tiebreakers in that situation would favor the Pack.
Of course, none of this is possible if NC State loses on Friday night, and North Carolina (6-5, 3-4) will be trying its best to end the Wolfpack's championship dreams. The Tar Heels have been a disappointment this season, but a win over NC State would be very sweet, as it would secure a winning season while eliminating their rival from the Atlantic race.
The two Research Triangle schools have met 110 times and North Carolina leads the series 68-36-6. The Heels have won two straight by a combined 58 points after NC State won three straight by a combined 25 points from 2016-18.
North Carolina at No. 20 NC State
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: NC State -6.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Sam Howell missed last week's game against Wofford with a lower-body injury, but it seems that holding him out was more of a precaution than anything else. All indications are that Howell will be ready to go on Friday night. That the junior quarterback was banged up should hardly be considered a surprise considering the punishment he has endured this season. The North Carolina offensive line has allowed a league-worst 40 sacks, and Howell has also been one of the primary ball carriers for UNC this season. He has taken big hits in seemingly every game.
Howell does have two playmakers that he has leaned on this year, and those two need to come up big this week. Running back Ty Chandler eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark when he rushed for 78 against Wofford this past week, and the Tennessee transfer has reached the end zone 13 times on the season. Wide receiver Josh Downs is 25 yards shy of breaking Hakeem Nicks' school record for most receiving yards in a season and is six catches away from breaking Ryan Switzer's single-season receptions mark. Getting production from other sources has been an issue as Howell, Chandler, and Downs have carried this offense all year.
NC State's defense has been one of the more consistent units in the conference in 2021. The Pack are second to Clemson in both scoring and total defense and are solid against both the run (third) and pass (fourth). Wake Forest did score 45 points on the Pack a couple of weeks ago, but even in that game, the defense held the Demon Deacons to 84 yards below their season average. Linebacker Drake Thomas has been a beast for the Wolfpack this season with 90 tackles, 12 for lost yardage, including six sacks. Considering UNC's protection issues this year, Thomas could be poised for another big game.
When NC State Has the Ball
There has been great quarterback play in the ACC this year and much of the talk has revolved around Pitt's Kenny Pickett, Virginia's Brennan Armstrong, Wake's Sam Hartman, and Howell. But the play of NC State's Devin Leary has flown mostly under the radar. The sophomore from Sicklerville, N.J., has thrown for 3,156 yards with a 31-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He is not a threat to run like Howell, but he has passed for over 300 yards in five straight games.
The Wolfpack does have Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person Jr. there to carry the ball, but the running game as a whole has struggled in recent weeks. NC State has not been held below 100 rushing yards in four straight games and has not had more than 150 yards on the ground against a Power 5 opponent since Oct. 10, 2020, versus Virginia. The success of this offense revolves around Leary throwing the ball to a deep receiving corps.
The North Carolina defense has had plenty of experience facing top passers. The Heels faced Pickett two weeks ago and Hartman the game before that. The problem is, both of those quarterbacks lit up Carolina for well over 300 yards. The rush defense hasn't been very good either, but against Leary, how UNC defends the pass will be what's important. They have picked off 11 passes this year, but they haven't rushed the passer well, and if Leary gets ample time to throw the Pack will move the ball with ease.
Both teams have sensational quarterbacks who can put points on the board and Carolina probably has the more balanced offense because of their running game. But what separates NC State from UNC is that they have a defense that can make stops. Plus, while motivation is never an issue for either team in this game, the fact that the result matters much more to NC State gives the Wolfpack a little extra incentive. From the beginning of the season until now, NC State has been a better, more consistent team than North Carolina. And that will continue this Friday.
Prediction: NC State 38, North Carolina 30
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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.