Tar Heels, Wolfpack meet in instate rivalry
North Carolina coach Larry Fedora got a memorable introduction to the long rivalry with North Carolina State when the Tar Heels ended a five-game skid on a last-second touchdown.
Now first-year Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren is making his debut in the most important game to his school's fan base.
The teams meet for the 103rd time Saturday in Raleigh, where N.C. State (3-4, 0-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) hasn't lost to the Tar Heels (2-5, 1-3) in eight years. And much like Fedora a year earlier, Doeren didn't need long to learn about the rivalry after arriving here from Northern Illinois.
"Everyone tells you good luck, and three or four people will tell you to beat Carolina," Doeren said. "Every place I've coached there were games that people would tell me were their favorite games, but this is obviously the one that stands out."
N.C. State has won the past three meetings in Carter-Finley Stadium, including a 13-0 win here two years ago. That was part of the Wolfpack's five-game winning streak before the Tar Heels finally broke through last year in a wild game decided on Gio Bernard's 74-yard punt return with 13 seconds left for a 43-35 win, a play that will live on in the rivalry's history.
Cornerback Juston Burris, who was on the coverage team for Bernard's return, said watching the play still makes him "cringe."
"I've definitely seen it over and over again, on Twitter and things like that, people coming up and showing it to me," Burris said. "I definitely don't want to see that happen again."
N.C. State has lost three straight overall and is coming off a 49-17 loss at No. 3 Florida State.
The Tar Heels ended a four-game skid with a 34-10 win against Boston College last week. And despite Bernard's return, Fedora is still hearing from UNC fans about the importance of beating the Wolfpack.
"Probably not as much as I heard before about what needed to be done," Fedora said. "I heard a lot more before, I can assure you."
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's North Carolina-N.C. State matchup:
PASS PROTECTION: Two years ago, N.C. State roughed up UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and knocked him from the game while holding the Tar Heels to 165 total yards. UNC's offensive line, which has battled inconsistency this year after losing three starters to the NFL draft, has to give Renner time to throw or at least open running lanes to buy him some time.
NO MORE RUST?: N.C. State quarterback Brandon Mitchell returned last week from a five-game absence with a foot injury. He said he's more comfortable now that he's played again, but he's still only played five quarters this year. For UNC's coaches, that's made it difficult to know exactly what to expect from N.C. State's offense with Mitchell in control.
QB ROTATION: North Carolina has gotten a spark by rotating mobile sophomore Marquise Williams at quarterback to give the defense a different look behind Renner. The Tar Heels racked up 500 yards against Miami and scored 34 points — their best total in a month — in the BC win. Williams' ability to throw has prevented defenses from keying on the run when he enters the game.
THORNTON'S RUNS: N.C. State halfback Shadrach Thornton is taking control of the Wolfpack's ground game. He had 23 carries for a career-best 173 yards and two touchdowns in last week's loss to the Seminoles. Thornton was suspended for the opener and played special teams in Week 2, but has worked his way back into a leading role and could have a big day against UNC's shaky defense.
EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS: It's sure to be rowdy in Carter-Finley Stadium and both teams will have to keep their composure. The coaches are looking for any edge to focus their players' emotions, too. UNC's coaches hung red ribbons and signs bearing the Wolfpack's athletics slogan "This is our state" in their locker room. N.C. State coaches made sure to point out dismissive comments from UNC tight end Eric Ebron on Twitter this week to their players, who have said they'll do their talking on the field.