RALEIGH — It was the ultimate compliment for a defense that has been spectacular while leading North Carolina to one of its best seasons in recent years.
"They've got half a dozen guys that are NFL guys," N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien said. "Looking at them, they are similar to the N.C. State defense of about seven years ago, whenever they had all those guys that ended up in the NFL."
UNC's resemblance to the Wolfpack teams led by Mario Williams, Manny Lawson and Stephen Tulloch makes for an intriguing matchup as N.C. State hosts the Tar Heels at noon Saturday.
No. 23 North Carolina (8-3, 4-3 ACC) has earned the right to play in a bowl game primarily because of a dominating defense that has held opponents to an ACC-low 15.9 points per game.
State (4-7, 1-6) has been eliminated from bowl contention but has one of the ACC's most productive offenses. The Wolfpack is averaging 30.5 points per game, almost a touchdown more than UNC.
Sophomore quarterback Russell Wilson leads the ACC with 27 touchdown passes and has rushed for 276 yards and four touchdowns. He has thrown three or more touchdown passes in a game five times this season.
"Russell Wilson, in my opinion, maybe with the exception of [Clemson running back] C.J. Spiller, is the most dynamic player in our league," UNC coach Butch Davis said. "He is a double-edged threat from a standpoint he can extend plays, throws the ball extremely well, [and] his mobility absolutely gives everybody fits."
Wilson should need that mobility today. Tar Heels defensive end Robert Quinn has 11 sacks, one short of the ACC high.
Speedy linebackers Quan Sturdivant and Bruce Carter also pursue aggressively and rarely miss tackles. Last week, the Tar Heels' pressure frustrated Boston College quarterback David Shinskie, sacking him three times.
"These guys are really good, and it seemed like every time I tried to go around or step up, there was another guy there," Shinskie said after a 31-13 Tar Heels win. "They have a great defense, and it was tough."
The Tar Heels harassed Boston College's quarterbacks into five interceptions, three by safety Deunta Williams. One week earlier, UNC intercepted Miami's Jacory Harris four times, with cornerback Kendric Burney picking off three of them.
That's the beauty of the Tar Heels' aggressive defense. In addition to keeping opponents from scoring, UNC's defense is feeding its offense with excellent field position by way of turnovers.
No ACC team has forced more turnovers than the 28 caused by UNC. Williams (six interceptions) and Burney (five) are among the conference leaders in interceptions.
That ability to create turnovers should trouble N.C. State, which fumbled three times in its first four snaps on offense last week.
"That's not our character," Wilson said. "That's not the way we play. We've got to fix that immediately. I think we're going to focus on that obviously this week."
In the last two seasons, N.C. State hasn't had much trouble against North Carolina's defense, scoring 31 points in 2007 and 41 in 2008 in the previous O'Brien vs. Davis meetings.
UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin said Wilson creates problems for defenses because he can run and throw the deep ball. The Wolfpack has completed 45 passes for 20 or more yards this season, seven more than in 2008.
Austin said Wilson is different from the other top quarterbacks in the ACC.
"He's really, really hard to tackle," Austin said. "He's an elusive guy."
But Wilson will have to work without Wolfpack offensive coordinator Dana Bible, who will be absent Saturday while undergoing treatment for leukemia. And O'Brien said many of North Carolina's starters have matured since playing as freshmen in 2007.
"We've seen the same faces for three years," O'Brien said. "They've just grown as a football team. They've stayed healthy. The schemes are the same. They're just playing them better, and they're playing with a lot of confidence.
"It comes down to the continuity of what they have and good players. When you look at it, it's probably an NFL defense."
It might take an NFL-caliber day from Wilson and N.C. State's offense for the Wolfpack to have a chance.
Staff writer J.P. Giglio contributed to this report.
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