At this time a year ago, the atmosphere leading up to North Carolina and N.C. State was heated, to say the least. This week, it’s been tepid at best.
It started early in the week last year, when N.C. State safety Hakim Jones called out North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, saying he “basically almost quits” after getting hit.
That Saturday, the Wolfpack proceeded to sack Williams four times, knock him out of the game and limit North Carolina to 30 rushing yards in a comprehensive 35-7 win in Chapel Hill. Whatever the Wolfpack said that week, it backed it up on the field.
A year later, circumstances have changed. It’s a quiet week leading up to Saturday’s game in Raleigh.
Williams, who underwent offseason hip surgery and stumbled through a rocky start against South Carolina, has proceeded to answer all of his critics this season while leading the Tar Heels to a 10-game winning streak and Coastal Division title.
That includes a few critics in red. Tuesday, Jones had nothing but good things to say about Williams and the North Carolina offense, noting its ability to generate big plays in particular. Defensive end Mike Rose had praise for Williams as well.
“He’s a great quarterback,” Jones said. “He’s completing a lot of passes. They’re getting a lot of bombs. He’s been doing very well this year.”
“He looks faster, much faster,” Rose said. “He’s playing great football. He’s not turning the ball over. That’s one thing I’ll give them credit for.”
For his part, Williams on Monday shrugged off what happened last year, both N.C. State’s comments and the result. Given the opportunity to respond from a position of strength, he declined. Waters remained calm.
Still, even if N.C. State’s rhetoric has changed, its game plan for Williams has not.
“Why it worked is because we played hard and we got off blocks,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “We were really good at keeping him in the pocket and not letting him run around. We tackled well and stayed on top of deep routes. That’s why our game plan worked. There wasn’t any magic in it.”
All of this is a reasonably good indication of what appears to be a very different tone this season, perhaps because of the unusual circumstances that surround the game, which maybe isn’t the biggest item left on either team’s to-do list.
There’s no disputing the quality of North Carolina’s season, a historic one for the Tar Heels as they challenge Clemson for the ACC title and still harbor hopes of entering the national-championship picture, albeit thin ones.
The Wolfpack isn’t playing for the same stakes, although it could substantially improve its bowl prospects by getting to eight wins – depending on results elsewhere, a win could mean the difference between Charlotte and Shreveport. And eight wins would mark progress over last season’s 7-5 regular-season record and give the Wolfpack a chance to improve from eight to nine wins overall.
Put it all together, and there’s more on the table here than merely the latest installment in an increasingly heated rivalry.
Which isn’t to say everything is hugs and pattycake. Even while acknowledging the Tar Heels’ improvement from last season, the N.C. State players made it clear they still had some venom in reserve.
“They’re a much different team, and our goal is to get them back to what they were last year,” Rose said.
“They were a very beatable team,” Jones said. “They still are.”
That may not be much by last year’s standards, but it’s enough to keep the pot moderately stirred as Saturday approaches.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock