Three keys and a prediction

Brett Friedlander

The NC State football team has one last chance to create something positive from an otherwise lost 2019 campaign.

There's nothing that can make a long offseason seem just a little more tolerable than a win against a hated rival, especially one that keeps that rival from earning bowl eligibility. Besides sending its seniors out with a victory in their final game, that's about all the Wolfpack has left to play for as it prepares for its annual showdown with North Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium.

The Tar Heels are a 10-point favorite as they look to gain the sixth win needed to get them into the postseason. But State has history on its side with three straight victories in the regular-season ending series.

Here are three keys that will help coach Dave Doeren's team in its effort to make it four in a row:

Don't give Sam Howell the chance to do damage downfield

The UNC freshman quarterback has already thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and a school-record 32 touchdowns this season. And there's a good chance he'll pad those numbers even more tonight against a patchwork Wolfpack secondary that has lost five cornerbacks to injury this season and has a history of giving up yardage in huge chunks. There will be mismatches downfield. State can't avoid that. But what it can avoid is giving Howell the time to sit back in the pocket and pick it apart. That means putting consistent pressure on Howell, hitting him as much as possible and keeping him on the run so he that doesn't have time to look for and find open receivers. And maybe, as it did against Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack defense can force him into a mistake or two. Another way of limiting Howell's effectiveness is to keep him off the field as much as possible by establishing an effective running game and sticking with it to win the time of possession battle by a significant margin.

Sam Howell
UNC's Sam Howell has thrown for 32 touchdowns this seasonCharles LeClaire/USAToday sports

Put two good halves together

Despite its current five-game losing streak, which can be attributed at least partially to the epic rash of injuries it has endured, there's at least a glimmer of hope heading into tonight's game because of the way State has played recently. The Wolfpack led Louisville 10-7 at halftime two weeks ago before letting the game slip away with a bad third quarter. Last Thursday in Atlanta, the it outscored Georgia Tech 23-7 in the second half. But it wasn't enough to overcome a disastrous first half. The trick now is to put those two promising halves together into one winning effort -- something State hasn't done in nearly two months.

Take full advantage of the home field advantage

As a struggling team already eliminated from bowl contention, looking to break a five-game losing streak, the Wolfpack is going to need all the help it can get in its season finale tonight. And there's nothing that helps a team keep battling through adversity better than a loud, supportive crowd behind it. History tells us that Wolfpack fans will be there in force, wearing red for their team at the start of the game. But will they still be there after halftime once the temperatures begin to drop? That's the big question, since State fans are notorious for leaving at the break and never returning. They have the potential to make a big difference tonight if they stay in their seats, though, by turning up the noise and the pressure on a UNC team that plays almost every game down to the wire and has had trouble finishing off games on the road.

Prediction

It's said that in rivalry games you can throw the records out the window. And in some ways that's true. The problem for NC State is that records aside, the Wolfpack just doesn't match up well with UNC. While it's possible that quarterback Devin Leary and his offense will continue to show the growth they displayed in the second half at Georgia Tech last Thursday, a defense that has a penchant for giving up big plays still has to figure out a way to stop an offense that thrives off making big plays. It's got the potential to be an entertaining game, but in the end the result is likely to be a familiar one (for this season, at least) ... Tar Heels 34, Wolfpack 23

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