For the first time since 2009, North Carolina and N.C. State will play on the final weekend of the regular season. This game won’t decide an ACC division race or bowl eligibility. Those things have been decided.
But there will be more at stake Saturday at Kenan Stadium than pride. The winner will finish with seven regular-season wins and, likely, a more attractive postseason destination. And, of course, there’s plenty of bragging rights that carry over everywhere from co-workers texting one another to recruiting.
The week began with N.C. State defensive back Hakim Jones calling out UNC quarterback Marquise Williams. It was fun but familiar. See Eric Ebron and Dexter Strickland, or noted Wolfpack fan/student Scotty McCreery and UNC infielder Michael Russell going at it on Twitter before the schools’ 2013 College World Series showdown.
It’s a rivalry that never rests, and now UNC beat reporter Andrew Carter and N.C. State beat reporter Joe Giglio take turns controlling the dialogue as they debate a few key questions about the game.
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1.) Who needs this game more: N.C. State or North Carolina?
Giglio: A win changes the complexion of either team’s season. For N.C. State, the goal of the season was to get to a bowl and win it. After a 3-9 finish in 2013, that’s progress by any definition.
Still, N.C. State’s best win this season is against Georgia Southern, a team playing its first season in the Football Bowl Subdivision. There’s no loss to Duke or East Carolina on the resume, like last year, but 6-6 with a win against Georgia Southern and ACC victories over Syracuse and Wake Forest, doesn’t move the needle with the fans.
Right or wrong, a 7-5 finish with a win against UNC would be considered a resounding success by 85 percent of the fans. That’s just the way the world works. It doesn’t change some of N.C. State’s flaws from this season, but it makes the offseason, especially if it’s followed with a bowl win, much more comfortable for coach Dave Doeren.
On the UNC side, a 7-5 finish probably will make the Tar Heels regret a home loss to Virginia Tech even more (a win there would have given the Tar Heels the Coastal Division title), but you can’t ask for a much better finish than wins against then-No. 25 Duke and N.C. State.
The problem with a 6-6 finish for UNC is a loss to N.C. State offsets the win against Duke, and this is a game the Tar Heels are supposed to win. It would be an upset for N.C. State to go into Kenan Stadium on Saturday and win.
Carter: N.C. State has achieved bowl eligibility, which was the Wolfpack’s primary goal this season. And yes, the accomplishment is somewhat muted by what has to be one of the worst nonconference schedules any power conference team has ever faced but, no matter – the Wolfpack will go bowling.
Given that, I think it means more to UNC. It’s only a one game difference, but a 7-5 finish looks a lot better than 6-6 – especially for a team that entered the season with the expectation and hope of winning the Coastal Division. If UNC loses this game, there’s no way to spin the season as a success.
A win gives the Tar Heels two victories against their rivals to close the season, and it would give them a winning record in the ACC – two accomplishments that qualify the season as a success.
2) What does N.C. State/UNC need to do to win?
Giglio: N.C. State definitely needs to get quarterback Jacoby Brissett back in rhythm and throwing with confidence. For the most part, he has been shaky since the Florida State game Sept. 27. Deep throws, in particular, have given him problems.
UNC’s defense has improved since October, but it’s still susceptible to big plays down the field, and N.C. State should be able to find running room with Shadrach Thornton or Matt Dayes.
One of N.C. State’s issues has been the inability to get its best players the ball. Thornton, Dayes, receiver Bo Hines and tight David J. Grinnage should be fed the ball Saturday, with a dash of receiver Bryan Underwood on home-run plays.
N.C. State’s defense has to figure out a way to stop Marquise Williams from running. When Williams runs, UNC’s offense is at its best. For whatever reason, the Tar Heels were hesitant to let Williams loose at the beginning of the season, but they’re onto the right formula now with Williams and speedy T.J. Logan in the read-option game and taking deep shots to Mack Hollins.
N.C. State has had problems with running quarterbacks all season. Georgia Southern’s Kevin Ellison ran for 116 yards, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson for 62, Boston College’s Tyler Murphy for 132 yards and Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas for 60. N.C. State’s record in those four games: 1-3.
Carter: If the Tar Heels can just replicate that performance against Duke – minus the three second-quarter fumbles – Larry Fedora would be a happy man. That was, by far, the best game of the year for the offensive line and the defense.
In most of UNC’s losses, the Tar Heels got off to slow starts and allowed an endless stream of long, game-changing plays. That happened against East Carolina, against Clemson, against Miami. N.C. State hasn’t shown a lot of big-play ability – just eight Wolfpack passing plays have gone for at least 40 yards – but the Tar Heels have a knack for giving up the big play. They have to avoid those.
Do that and get off to a good start and UNC will have a great chance.
3) What special teams quirk will decide this game?
Carter: It always seems like some sort of special teams quirk makes a difference in this rivalry. I’ll go with some sort of play in the punting game. Maybe a botched snap or a successful fake. Is this the game Ryan Switzer breaks a punt return for a touchdown? He hasn’t done that yet this season, after producing five last season.
Giglio: The kicking game really has made the difference in three of the past four years. T.J. Graham’s 87-yard punt return provided the winning points in N.C. State’s 2010 victory, Gio Bernard’s 74-yard punt return to end a five-year losing streak made him a UNC legend in 2012 and N.C. State’s botched fake punt last year changed the momentum in UNC’s 27-19 win in Raleigh.
Given the punt returns seem to be the thing in Chapel Hill, it’s probably Switzer’s turn to make a big play. He actually threw for a touchdown pass in last year’s game. Fedora loves to unload the playbook in rivalry games.
4) Are bulletin-board comments like Jones made Monday good for this rivalry?
Giglio: Normally, a little kindling usually is better for the media than it is for the game. Everett Withers declined to talk to Kenneth Wainstein; he should have declined to give his infamous radio interview bragging about the academics at the “flagship” before the 2011 loss in Raleigh.
Then again, UNC tight end Eric Ebron did just fine last year with his pregame smack talk.
But with Jones, there’s probably a few different ways to get a shot in at UNC without questioning the toughness of its best player and leader.
Carter: I love it. Trash talk and silly comments like these are part of what make rivalries fun. Just look at what Ebron said before the game last season. And, of course, they’re good for those of us who have to write about these games.
I don’t know how good Jones’ comments will be for him and his teammates, and undoubtedly Doeren couldn’t have liked what Jones had to say. But come on. It’s not like UNC would have lacked motivation if Jones hadn’t said what he said.