Bowl eligibility is on the line for North Carolina on Saturday night (7 p.m., ACC Network) as the Tar Heels travel to meet N.C. State in Raleigh. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack will try to play spoiler as it looks to extend its winning streak in the series to four games.
Here’s what to watch for at Carter-Finley Stadium:
Big Plays Aplenty
As injuries have piled up in the State secondary, the Wolfpack (4-7) has had an especially tough time slowing down opponents’ passing games.
Over the past four games, State’s opponents have completed 73 of 114 pass attempts for 976 yards with 14 touchdowns and no interceptions.
That could bode well for Sam Howell and the Carolina (5-6) offense, as the freshman quarterback has thrown for 1,054 yards with 12 touchdowns and three interceptions over that span.
Eight of those touchdown passes have covered 30 or more yards — an area where Carolina is among the best nationally, with 23 completions of 30 or more yards this season.
“I think when you put the ball in a position where the receiver doesn’t have to slow down, and he can run through the football, it lends to being more efficient down the field,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “And we’ve been obviously very happy with our deep ball game.”
Establishing the Run
For as poorly as the State secondary has played, the Wolfpack has still been fairly stout against the run at times this season, ranking 47 nationally in rushing defense.
That ranking has dropped as more stress has been put on protecting the guys on the back end, but Larrell Murchison and Co. can get after quarterbacks and keep offensive lines from opening holes for runners.
In four of Carolina’s five wins this season, the Tar Heels have run for 200 yards. They’ve been held under 200 yards in all six losses, so this isn’t rocket science — if Javonte Williams, Michael Carter or Antonio Williams can get hot, the chance of a win increases exponentially.
Things get heated when Carolina and State get together, and there’s always going to be a little extra talking between plays.
That’s where it’s got to end for the Tar Heels, who lost their composure in last year’s game, ending their season by fighting with the victorious Wolfpack in the end zone.
Mack Brown has been clear with his team.
“These guys know each other and it’s an important game to both universities,” he said. “What I told the guys, ‘If we win and we hope we do and we go to a bowl game, you don’t get to go if you fight.’
“Just play the game. You can be physical between the whistles; you don’t need to be doing extra-curricular stuff; that hurts you.”
Big Plays Aplenty, Part II
Carolina’ secondary isn’t as depleted as State’s but the Tar Heels are still piecing it together back there, and Wolfpack quarterback Devin Leary certainly has the ability to make them pay if they’re not on top of their game.
“Leary's got a big-time arm … he rips it,” defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said. “He made a throw against Georgia Tech it was like a third-and-17 back shoulder to the field that was in absolute BB.”
Emeka Emezie (54 rec., 528 yards, 2 TD) and Devin Carter (31 rec., 449 yards) are both threats to stretch the field, while tight end Cary Angeline (25 rec., 379 yards, 5 TD) is a big, physical target in the red zone.
A Big Deal
There’s a lot on the line in this one.
Brown hasn’t been shy about his desire to dominate in-state opponents, and a win vs. State would give Carolina a chance to finish 2-2 this season.
More importantly for the Tar Heels, it would send another message to in-state recruits as Carolina looks to continue flipping the script after the Wolfpack had taken control in the final years of the Larry Fedora era.
Another way to stand out to recruits? Make a bowl game and get those extra practices while your rivals are preparing for next season.
“That’s something that these guys want to do,” Brown said. “A lot of our team hasn’t been to a bowl.”