There has been no discussion of it, North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said earlier this week, but then again there hasn’t needed to be. Fedora and his players remember well what happened a year ago against N.C. State – they remember the humiliation of a 35-7 defeat on senior day at Kenan Stadium.
“We hate it,” Dajuan Drennon, the Tar Heels defensive end, said earlier this week, making a face while he spoke as if he’d tasted something sour. “We hate everything that State does to us. It’s a rivalry game, and they ran up the score on us last year, so we weren’t happy about that.
“And we’re going to use that as fuel to our fire this year.”
That has been a theme for the Tar Heels during the past few months in this, their finest season in 18 years. They have used past failures – the one against N.C. State last year included – to inspire positive changes.
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And there have been many for UNC since last season ended with two dreadful defeats, the first of which came against the Wolfpack. Now UNC and N.C. State meet again, for the 105th time, on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium.
There is more at stake than mere pride, though the Tar Heels have already won the ACC’s Coastal Division, while N.C. State will finish fourth in the Atlantic. A UNC victory keeps alive the chance, however improbable, of making the College Football Playoff.
An N.C. State victory puts the Wolfpack in position for a more desirable bowl game, and gives it the satisfaction of ending, once and for all, all the playoff talk in Chapel Hill. And for both teams, the game on Saturday is part rivalry game, part state championship game – one that has implications well beyond Saturday.
“There’s bragging rights, for sure,” Dave Doeren, the N.C. State coach, said earlier this week when asked how a victory on Saturday might help the Wolfpack’s recruiting efforts. “… it definitely helps to be able to say we won the state.”
N.C. State did that last year with a win that left Doeren talking, with pride, about the blue collar, “hand in the dirt” nature of his program. At least, that’s how he put it, the implication that UNC wasn’t so much blue collar.
Fedora, the UNC coach, was asked about those comments earlier this week and whether they’d stuck with him all this time later.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” Fedora said.
It doesn’t really matter what happened last year. Because for us, it’s a new year, new team – everything’s new about it.
UNC coach Larry Fedora
Nor did he know how to answer a question a couple of days later about what exactly happened to his team against N.C. State a year ago. Was the Tar Heels’ meltdown – they trailed 35-0 until a meaningless touchdown in the final minutes – reflective of the team’s toxic team chemistry?
“I got no way to tell you that,” Fedora said. “I don’t know. … I couldn’t tell you.”
Reversal of fortune
What has happened since N.C. State’s 35-7 victory at UNC last Nov. 29, though, is proof of how quickly things can change in college football – both good and bad. UNC has lost twice since then, while N.C. State has had to adapt to the loss of two of its most important players.
Shadrach Thornton, the senior running back, ran for 161 yards and a touchdown in N.C State’s victory last season at UNC. Then, in September, he found his way off the team after finding off-field trouble for the fourth time.
After Thornton’s departure Matt Dayes became the team’s primary running back. Until he was lost for the season, too, late last month after suffering a foot injury. Amid the attrition and the injury, N.C. State is merely one game better than it was a season ago entering its regular season finale against UNC.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, have completely reversed the direction of their program. UNC’s win total declined in Fedora’s second and third seasons, going from eight victories to seven, and then from seven to six. And now UNC makes the short trip east riding a 10-game winning streak.
The Tar Heels have set records in some of their victories – largest come-from-behind victory in school history, at Georgia Tech, and most points in consecutive games, against Duke and Miami. And an 11th consecutive victory, on Saturday, would represent its longest winning streak in a single season in school history.
The Tar Heels are having the kind of season N.C. State hoped to have. The kind of season, back in August, that might have seemed more likely from N.C. State, given it ended last year with wins in its final three games.
Less is more on defense
For UNC, not much of what it has done this season has resembled last season. Especially defensively.
“They’re doing a lot less,” Doeren said of UNC’s revamped and rebuilt defense under first-year coordinator Gene Chizik. “Last year they did everything, and didn’t do a lot well. And they’re playing sound. They’re playing really good pass coverage, tight coverage.
“Their corners have had a good season.”
The defensive test UNC will face on Saturday is far less daunting than it looked like it might be a couple of months ago. N.C. State entered the season with perhaps the best stable of running backs in the ACC.
And now, in late November, it finds itself trying to find its way without Thornton and Dayes, who was averaging 108.1 yards rushing before his injury. A season ago in Chapel Hill, the Wolfpack ran for nearly 400 yards, with quarterback Jacoby Brissett accounting for 167 of those.
But, Fedora said, “this is a different team.”
He’d been asked whether UNC’s defensive line was better-equipped to handle N.C. State.
“I won’t know until we get out there,” Fedora said. “I’ve got a pretty good feeling. But we won’t really know until we get out there.”
This will be the third time in as many weeks that UNC plays against a team that soundly beat the Tar Heels a season ago. The previous two times, before victories against Miami and Virginia Tech, Fedora hasn’t brought up the past.
“Because every week, this is the 2015 team,” he said. “I mean, you’ve heard me say it – I know y’all are tired of hearing me saying it. But that’s what we say with our guys. It doesn’t really matter what happened last year. Because for us, it’s a new year, new team – everything’s new about it.”
Something else new for UNC: Fedora and his staff haven’t pulled out any gimmicks this season during N.C. State week. There have been no locker room decorations, no signs posted anywhere, nothing red and white around the team’s facility.
Fedora had done those things in years past. This year, the Tar Heels heard the N.C. State fight song blaring during the first practice of the week but, outside of that, it has been business as usual, the same things as always.
Which is why, even after clinching the Coastal Division, Fedora still starts team meetings by saying, “Coastal champs, state champs.” UNC checked one of those off the list last weekend. It could complete the other this weekend.
“I don’t think our guys, I don’t think that they need extra motivation,” Fedora said. “They’re motivated. They know what they need to do. They know what’s at stake. They’ve got another goal sitting there.”