The game Larry Fedora has been counting down for is finally here. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — The countdown is over, at last. North Carolina on Saturday hosts N.C. State. This is a game, of course, that Larry Fedora has anticipated since UNC introduced him as the Tar Heels’ head coach. And with good reason. After all, Fedora received no shortage of reminders about the significance of this game. He had been counting down the days until it arrived.
And now it’s here.
And with it will come the answers to several questions: Will UNC break that five-game losing streak against the Wolfpack? Can N.C. State, which has never beaten the Tar Heels in six consecutive games, make history? Can the Tar Heels’ rebound from a disappointing loss at Duke? Will the Wolfpack remain atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division? Even though UNC’s postseason fate was decided before the season began, this still feels like a huge game, with important implications.
With an assist from our N.C. State beat reporter, Joe Giglio, some things to know entering tomorrow …
N.C. State (5-2, 2-1 ACC) at UNC (5-3, 2-2)
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill.
Three things to watch:
1. How does N.C. State fare defending North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard?
The Wolfpack has done relatively well against the run this season, and is holding opposing teams to an average of 3.5 yards per carry. That ranks 29th nationally. But Bernard will represent the Wolfpack’s most significant challenge to date. He leads the ACC in rushing (795 yards) and is averaging 7.7 yards per carry. Bernard last season had one of his worst games of the season against N.C. State, which held him to 47 yards on 18 carries.
2. Can the Tar Heels solve their run defense woes?
UNC ranks 25th nationally in run defense, but that’s a bit deceiving given the Tar Heels’ problems defending the run the past two games. They haven’t given up a ton of big plays but UNC at times hasn’t been able to get off the field defensively, either. The Heels have allowed 414 yards rushing in the past two weeks. The good news for the Heels is that N.C. State has struggled on the ground in consecutive games.
3. How will the Tar Heels play in the beginning?
It’s not likely a coincidence that UNC has started three games poorly this season and lost all three. The starts against Louisville and Duke were especially bad, though the Tar Heels rallied and nearly won both games. There would be no excuse for starting slowly against the Wolfpack. Not amid UNC’s five-game losing streak to N.C. State. Not amid all the off-the-field drama between the rival fan bases. The Heels should be motivated from the start.
N.C. State will keep an eye on: Bernard
Bernard has been a monster in ACC play (694 rushing and receiving yards in three games), carrying the Tar Heels’ offense on the ground and with timely catches. N.C. State’s linebackers struggled with Maryland’s Wes Brown (121 yards) last week and with Florida State’s Chris Thompson (141 yards) on Oct. 6.
Bernard’s not as fast as Thompson but he’s quicker and more involved in UNC’s offense. Bernard should also be motivated to atone for last year’s 47-yard performance in a 13-0 loss at N.C. State.
UNC will keep an eye on: N.C. State QB Mike Glennon
Russell Wilson made his name with two great performances against UNC, and this is Glennon’s chance to put his mark on this series. The defense carried N.C. State last year in a 13-0 win in Raleigh.
Glennon threw for just 164 yards. But Glennon has been writing his own legacy this season. For two straight games, Glennon has led the Wolfpack to game-winning drives in the final minute. His starts have been slow, against Florida State and Maryland, but his finishes have been on target.
Glennon had his second 300-yard game of the season and fifth of his career against the Terrapins. Glennon has 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the season, with four of the picks coming in the first game. His completion percentage is down from a year ago (58.3 percent from 62.5) but his yards per game are up, as is the confidence of his teammates in late-game situations.
Key matchup: N.C. State’s defensive line vs. UNC’s offensive line
The Tar Heels have five future pros, N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien said, on their offensive line – though one of them, right tackle Brennan Williams, was lost for the season this week because of a shoulder injury. Led by guard Jonathan Cooper, the Heels’ line has been outstanding, particularly in protecting quarterback Bryn Renner, who has only been sacked five times in eight games. N.C. State will have to generate pressure with its front four, because it will need to use its linebackers to keep track of Bernard.
Stat that matters: 1894. These two teams first met in 1894 and have played 101 times. N.C. State has never won six in a row against the Tar Heels, but could Saturday.
Pulse check: This is as close as the Tar Heels will get to a bowl game, thanks to their NCAA transgressions under Butch Davis. There’s no reason to save anything for Sunday. The Wolfpack can still win the Atlantic Division, and it controls its own fate, but it can’t afford any losses if it wants to get to Charlotte for the ACC title game.
Quote of the week: “I’m not going to lie and say there isn’t talk about not being on the team that loses to Carolina. Since my senior year when I was recruited, we haven’t lost against them. So it would be huge to keep that going get to six in a row … It’s going down on Saturday. There’s going to be some fireworks.” –N.C. State safety Earl Wolff
Loosely-related-to-the-game pregame haiku:
Larry has kept count
But so too have State faithful
One, two, three, four, five
North Carolina 31, N.C. State 29