North Carolina and NC State have been facing off on the gridiron for over a century. The two programs simply don’t like each other, no matter what they’re playing for. This year is different; this has the makings of a war in Raleigh on Saturday night. North Carolina is playing for a sixth win and a postseason berth. The Tar Heels’ bowl hopes depend on beating NC State.
Two Programs Headed in Different Directions
The North Carolina-NC State rivalry entered a new phase at the end of last season, on the day Mack Brown was hired in Chapel Hill. The Wolfpack had just beaten the Tar Heels in overtime, and North Carolina fired Larry Fedora after two consecutive dismal seasons. NC State’s victory gave it three straight wins in the series. Many of the top recruits in North Carolina had been choosing NC State or leaving the state altogether.
While many questioned the hiring of Brown, the Wolfpack made plans for the Gator Bowl, where they took on Texas A&M. However, Brown had already gone to work on the recruiting trail, flipping quarterback Sam Howell from his commitment to Florida State. This past February, Brown added receiver Josh Downs to the class of 2020. Downs is the top-ranked receiver in the state of Georgia, and he is also the son of former NC State running back Gary Downs.
North Carolina dealt two major recruiting blows to NC State during one week in October. Wide receiver Stephen Gosnell and offensive lineman Jonathan Adorno both flipped their commitments to North Carolina after previously committing to the Wolfpack. Earlier in October, Desmond Evans, the top recruit in the state, committed to North Carolina. It a turn of events that put NC State and coach Dave Doeren on notice. The Tar Heels now have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. The Wolfpack is struggling both on the field and on the recruiting trail, while North Carolina is moving on a rising trajectory.
Both Teams Have Been Plagued by Injuries
North Carolina has dealt with numerous injuries this season, and NC State has been hammered with health issues. At one point, eleven Wolfpack starters were out of action. The Tar Heels can relate, as one injury has followed another. Defensive back Patrice Rene and center Nick Polino went down during the second game of the season. More injuries would follow, with left tackle Charlie Heck and defensive tackle Jason Strowbridge both missing time. Defensive back Myles Wolfolk missed games before being lost for the season during the Virginia game.
NC State experienced the injury bug from the outset of the season. Receiver C.J. Riley tore his ACL against East Carolina. Tight end Dylan Autenrieth sustained the exact same injury three weeks later. Tackle Justin Witt and cornerback Taiyon Palmer suffered season-ending injuries at the beginning of October. Two more defensive backs, Teshaun Smith and Chris Ingram, saw their season come to an end in October. Cornerback Nick McCloud is questionable for Saturday’s game.
The Tar Heels have had to ask a lot from young players, especially in the secondary. Opposing offenses have attacked North Carolina’s defensive backs. However, improvement has started to show, and freshman defensive back Storm Duck seems to get better every week. NC State has had a more difficult time replacing its starters. The Wolfpack’s lack of depth has hurt the team, resulting in a five-game losing streak and a free fall in fanbase spirit. Many of the Wolfpack faithful have forgotten Doeren’s back-to-back nine-win seasons in 2017 and 2018 in light of the team’s current struggles.
Tar Heels’ Bowl Hopes Depend on Beating NC State
North Carolina notched its fifth win of the season this past Saturday, with a 56-7 thrashing of the Mercer Bears. The program’s overall record now sits at 5-6, so the implications for Saturday are clear: win and go to a bowl, or lose and start preparing for next season.
The Tar Heels are currently an eight-point favorite over the Wolfpack, and they should be able to hang points on the board. Howell is playing at an unbelievable level for a freshman behind a banged-up offensive line. After the Mercer game, he has thrown 32 touchdowns, against only six interceptions. The fact that Howell is playing for a 5-6 team is the only reason he hasn’t entered the Heisman conversation. Given NC State’s thin secondary, Howell will be expected to launch it often on Saturday night.
North Carolina’s defense has had its own struggles and will have to step up. Howell and the offense can light it up, but shouldn’t be put into a situation of having to score 40 points to win against the Wolfpack. During the Virginia and Pitt games, the defense gave up touchdowns at a rate the offense couldn’t keep up with. That can’t happen Saturday, especially with the season on the line.
Brown’s first season back in Chapel Hill has been a success. Last season’s 2-9 record is a thing of the past. Reaching the postseason would cap off a stunning turnaround. So now it’s down to one game, against a bitter rival. The Wolfpack is wounded, but won’t go away quietly in this one. The Tar Heels’ bowl hopes depend on beating NC State. A victory this Saturday could be a major step upward for a program on the rise.