CHAPEL HILL — Everett Withers grew up a North Carolina fan and says he bleeds Carolina blue.
His appreciation for the Tar Heels' rivalry with N.C. State makes the atmosphere at the Kenan football complex different from in recent years.
Former coach Butch Davis was 0-4 against the Wolfpack and didn't treat the rivalry with the same reverence as Withers - or N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien. But Withers, who took over at North Carolina after Davis was fired in July, said rivalries against in-state opponents have a special place in college football.
North Carolina (6-3, 2-3 ACC) will visit N.C. State (4-4, 1-3) at 12:30 p.m. Saturday in a game that will be televised by WRAL in Raleigh.
"Yeah, it's important," Withers said Monday at his weekly news conference. "Sometimes you want to stay so focused that you want to say, it's (just) the next game, it's the next game. But these kids were recruited by State, a lot of them. Some of them may not have been offered by State. They may not have had an opportunity. So I think it's important when you have a school that's only 20, 25 miles down the road, to be a rivalry."
O'Brien always has treated N.C. State's rivalry with North Carolina as if it's more important than other games. He said Monday a team has to play all 12 games, but there is one that's always a little more important than the others.
"It's an important game because it's an important game to our faculty, our staff, our alumni, our fan base," O'Brien said. "That's what makes it different."
Twice in the past three seasons the Tar Heels have finished with a better overall record than N.C. State, but lost the in-state rivalry game. In 2009, North Carolina went 8-5 and the Wolfpack struggled to a 5-7 record. But one of those five N.C. State wins was a 28-27 decision against the Tar Heels.
North Carolina defensive end Quinton Coples admitted that N.C. State's players have seemed more motivated for the rivalry game.
"Over the past couple of years we've been going to good bowls and what not," Coples said. "I think that, I guess in a sense you could say they wanted it more. We were overlooking them and how talented they actually were. We were going out and playing a good game but not good enough."
If the Tar Heels weren't fired up to play N.C. State in the past, it seems they are now. Freshman wide receiver T.J. Thorpe of Durham said the older players want to win this game more than any other on the schedule.
Thorpe said he already is hearing trash talk from fans. He said one of his former high school girlfriends used to be an N.C. State cheerleader and was texting him saying her classmates were saying the Wolfpack will kick the ball away from him on returns.
"Her friends are always talking to me about it," Thorpe said. "I have a lot of friends who were N.C. State fans when I was in high school. I get calls from them and my old teachers and everything. But I think it's all in good fun, except for on game day."
And except for when you lose. It's not fun then, either. North Carolina's players know that feeling all too well.
They are determined not to let it happen again, and so is their coach. Withers usually spends a fair amount of time reviewing film after a game.
But after the Tar Heels' 49-24 win last week against Wake Forest, he immediately turned his attention to preparing for N.C. State.
"I think our older guys, they can say they haven't been, but all year long they've probably had this one marked on the calendar," Withers said.
"I've been places where you talked about it from Day One of training camp. It's an in-state game. We want to win it and beat every team in this state that we play. It gives us a chance to be 7-3. So it's huge for us."
Staff writer J.P. Giglio contributed to this story