Heading into Saturday's rivalry football game between the N.C. State Wolfpack and North Carolina Tar Heels, it's clear: Anything can happen.
Above: N.C. State won last year’s matchup. Photo from the News & Observer.
Heading into Saturday’s rivalry game between N.C. State and North Carolina, it’s clear: Anything can happen.
The N.C. State football team has four losses on its record heading into its senior day home matchup.
Expectations were high for the Wolfpack (7-4, 5-2 ACC) this season, with a lot of veteran talent from last year’s squad returning. Seven games into the season, N.C. State was looking at having one of the best seasons in program history. The Wolfpack was 6-1 and undefeated in conference play. Even N.C. State beat writers felt the team had the potential to win the ACC and make the college football playoff.
However, those goals slipped out of reach when the team lost three of its last four games. Now, the group hopes to send its seniors — notably all-purpose back Jaylen Samuels and defensive end Bradley Chubb — out on a high note. With a win on Saturday, the Wolfpack can finish the regular season with eight wins and land itself in a better-than-average bowl game.
As for the Tar Heels (3-8, 1-6 ACC), Saturday’s matchup with the Wolfpack will be their last game of the year. Before the season started, many thought it would be a rebuilding year for UNC. However, few figured North Carolina’s season would be this disastrous. The team lost about 98 percent of its offensive production from a year ago to graduation and the NFL draft. Then, a series of injuries (many to starters) depleted what little depth UNC had.
The Tar Heels do have some momentum heading into Saturday’s game, though. UNC defeated Pittsburgh on the road about two weeks ago (the team’s only win against a Power Five opponent this year) and then blew out Western Carolina on senior day in Chapel Hill last week. North Carolina will likely treat this game against N.C. State like a bowl game and leave it all on the field for one last time this season.
Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Wolfpack and Tar Heels square off in Raleigh this weekend:
Running the ball
For the past three years of this matchup, the team that has ran for more yards has won. N.C. State’s leading rusher, junior running back Nyheim Hines, has 844 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns on the season. However, since getting banged up at Notre Dame, Hines has not looked the same. In the last four games, Hines has only ran for more than 50 yards one time (110 rushing yards against Boston College).
UNC’s rushing attack is led by sophomore running back Jordon Brown and freshman running back Michael Carter. Brown has 598 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns on the season. Carter has 530 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns on the season.
The Tar Heels give up 205.8 yards on the ground per game (tied for 109th in the nation). If Hines is recovered and ready to go, he will give UNC’s defense nightmares. N.C. State only allows opponents 136.7 rushing yards per game. But in the last four games, teams have ran the ball for 220 plus yards three times on the Wolfpack.
N.C. State’s defensive line versus UNC’s offensive line
The Wolfpack’s defensive live has been stout for most of the year. But the group hasn’t imposed its will in N.C. State’s last few games like it has for most of the season. N.C. State didn’t register a single sack against Wake Forest last week, and Demon Deacons quarterback John Wolford had all day to throw.
However, Chubb still is no. 7 in the nation in sacks per game and no. 2 in tackles for a loss. Aside from Chubb, the rest of the Wolfpack’s d-line also has NFL talent. Senior defensive linemen Kentavius Street, Justin Jones and B.J. Hill are all capable of harassing opposing quarterbacks and getting in the backfield.
UNC’s offensive line has been shaky all year. The Tar Heel line has allowed 2.55 sacks per game this season — one of the worst numbers in the country. Whether the UNC o-line can hold its own and create openings for Brown and Carter will determine how successfully the Tar Heels can move the ball against the Wolfpack.
UNC’s quarterback play
North Carolina redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Elliott is expected to start for the third straight game. Elliott filled in when redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt went down with an injury in the first half of the game against Miami and has been the starter since.
Elliott struggled that game against the Hurricanes, throwing three interceptions and just one touchdown. However, Elliott has had success the last two games for the Tar Heels. The redshirt sophomore had 475 passing yards and six passing touchdowns, combined, against Pittsburgh and Western Carolina. If UNC’s run game can have success early, it will open up the passing attack and give Elliott a chance to be successful.