At 5-6, North Carolina needs a win over NC State to gain bowl eligibility. The Wolfpack won't be bowling this year, as they dropped to 4-7 with their loss to Georgia Tech last Thursday night. But that doesn't make this week’s game in Raleigh any less important. Especially this year.
One year ago, immediately after NC State scored a game-winning overtime touchdown, a fight broke out on the field. Players on both sides were suspended for future games, and undoubtedly the Heels and the Pack remember what occurred. So we are set up for a little Carolina drama when the two squads square off this weekend.
This will be the 109th meeting between the Research Triangle neighbors, with the Heels holding a 66-36-6 advantage.
North Carolina at NC State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: ACC Network
Spread: North Carolina -8
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Statistically speaking, the NC State defense isn't horrible. The Wolfpack are 54th nationally in total defense and 46th in rushing defense. But their performance has trended in the wrong direction over the back half of the season. Six opponents have thrown for more than 270 yards on the Pack, and after leading the conference in rushing defense through six games, NC State allowed 429 rushing yards to Boston College, 246 to Clemson and 266 to Georgia Tech. Only Clemson burned them both passing and running, but during their five-game losing streak, they’ve given up yards and points at an alarming rate.
This week, NC State will be facing a team that has had good offensive balance for most of the season. Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have combined for more than 1,600 rushing yards, and Antonio Williams has run for 172 yards in the past two games. The Heels have also thrived throwing the ball with quarterback Sam Howell, who now holds the Carolina single-season touchdown record with 32 and will top the 3,000-yard passing mark this week.
NC State will have to decide which aspect of the Carolina offense it wants to key on, and stopping the run should be the priority. The Tar Heels have rushed for over 200 yards four times, and they have won each of those games. Likewise, NC State has allowed only five teams to top the 100-yard rushing mark but is 0-5 when it does. Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren has to hope that the Carolina running game is slowed down and that star lineman Larrell Murchison can pressure Howell enough to get the freshman off his rhythm. Creating turnovers is unlikely, since the Pack rank 129th in the nation with just seven takeaways, and they went six consecutive games without forcing a turnover before recovering two Georgia Tech fumbles. But maybe Murchison and company can force punts instead of allowing points.
When NC State Has the Ball
Not only are the Wolfpack limited in terms of forcing turnovers, but their offense has given the ball away 17 times as well, leading to a minus-10 turnover margin. All this has happened after State started the year with a plus-four turnover differential in the first three games.
It seems as though head coach Dave Doeren has settled on a quarterback, as Devin Leary has handled all the snaps since taking the reins in the Boston College game. He's got a lot of growing to do, but he is the man right now, and as a redshirt freshman, he will probably have that role going forward. He has completed fewer than half of his passes and has not threatened many teams deep, but Doeren has decided that the future is now and that Leary is the team's best option.
While North Carolina doesn’t have a highly ranked defense, it is much improved over the past few years, and it features a few big-time playmakers. Linebacker Chazz Surratt will be in contention for all-league honors, and linemen Jason Strowbridge, Aaron Crawford, and Tomon Fox can be extremely disruptive. A secondary that has been battered by injuries needs the front seven to create havoc.
There are two big questions for NC State entering this game. Will the Wolfpack carry the momentum they established in the second half of the Georgia Tech game into their season finale? And will playing their archrival be enough motivation considering they cannot reach the postseason? My guess is yes to both, but it still won't result in a win. The Pack will play with a purpose, looking to make sure that the Tar Heels will be staying at home for the bowl season as well. But North Carolina has just been the better, more consistent team all year. It will again be a battle to the end, and Carolina will gain a narrow victory to earn a bowl bid.
Prediction: North Carolina 27, NC State 24
— 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.