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Carolina Football Opponent Preview: The State Game is All About Narrative

This may be a put up or shut up game for Larry Fedora.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Wake Forest Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The current narrative surrounding N.C. State’s football program is both hilarious and depressing to this blogger. Dave Doeren has finally started turning in wins against FBS programs with winning records (Wake, Louisville, Florida State and BC last year added to his two from 2016— and zero the previous three years), and turned in a 9-4 mark. The Wolfpack spent about a quarter of the 2017 Notre Dame game in the top 15, and Dave Doeren openly entertained job overtures from Tennessee and Ole Miss.

Despite those flirtations (HELLO, UNC STAFF, YOU CAN NEGATIVELY RECRUIT TOO!) State and Doeren have made the most of their moderate success.

He parlayed those nine wins into a five-year extension, and his talks with other schools have somehow led to recruiting success unseen in West Raleigh since Chuck Amato’s rise. His staff has built their recruiting pitch on openly disparaging Carolina’s football program— from Eli Drinkwitz going on Adam & Joe to tout Kenan Stadium’s reseating, to openly telling recruits that Larry Fedora is out after 2018. The irony is that Carolina was largely incapable of making the same progress with 2015’s success and Mitch Trubisky’s draft stock.

Doeren has done some nice things at State after taking four years to build up a decent-to-middling ACC program: they’re constantly efficient on offense and were legitimately awesome on defense the past two years. The physical brand of football works very well with the persona the coaches are trying to craft— and its time for UNC to respond.

The Saturday after Thanksgiving is the closest thing to a must-win on Carolina’s schedule in the Larry Fedora era.

2017 Season

The Wolfpack began the season with some hype, and proceeded to lay an egg in Charlotte against an overachieving but underwhelming South Carolina team. According to S&P+, State would’ve won that game 79% of the time, but not the time that mattered. #NCStates**t.

Well, lo and behold, an early loss to South Carolina does wonders for both State and Carolina— the Wolfpack reeled off six straight wins, including an upset over a Deondre Francois-less Florida State team (win expectancy: 32%), and a Lamar Jackson-having Louisville won. After a 35-17 win at Pitt, the Wolfpack sat at 6-1 and #14 in the polls.

Then, a trip to Notre Dame saw a 35-14 loss. Then, the Wolfpack lost a seven-point game against Clemson for what seems like the eighth straight year (actually, only the second). After rebounding with a three-point win at BC, the Wolfpack lost to Wake and beat Carolina to finish 8-4.

In the Sun Bowl, they beat up on an Arizona State team whose coaching staff was literally coaching despite having been fired. You don’t see that everyday.

Gone from the decade’s best State team are the following: Bradley Chubb’s 26 tackles for loss, Jerod Fernandez’s team-leading 99 tackles, Nyhiem Hines’ 1,264 yards from scrimmage (and plenty returning kicks), Jaylen Samuels’ Swiss Army Knife abilities, and their 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th-leading tacklers.

We will see if Dave Doeren rebuilds or reloads.

Series History

Say it with me: Carolina is 66-35-6 against N.C. State. That is sixty-six wins, versus thirty five defeats. Until recently, that meant two of every three games between these schools which did not end in a tie was won by North Carolina. Or, as they like to say, unc-ch. That doesn’t bother us.

The schools are an even 3-3 in the Larry Fedora era, with the Heels getting Tom O’Brien fired for having the audacity to lose to his rival once (in awesome fashion) after the 2012 game. Despite Carolina’s 35-point first quarter scoring barrage in 2015, the Heels bookended that ass-kicking with two flat home losses that were also ass kickings: 35-7 in 2014 and 28-21 (game wasn’t that close) in 2016.

Last year’s result was fine.

Carolina O vs. State D

I’m not sure if the secret is out, but State’s defense was low-key not as good as we thought it was last year. Their average points allowed was up 2.4 points from 2016, average yards per play up half a yard, and total defense was 31 yards per game worse— leading to a defense ranked 63rd in S&P+. Even when they succeed, they don’t do it well.

The headliners returning from that defense? Jarius Morehead was their second-leading tackler from his strong safety spot. Germaine Pratt was essentially the third linebacker, and had 5.5 TFL and 69 tackles of his own. Darian Roseboro was better as a sophomore than he was as a junior, dropping from 7 to 2.5 sacks in 2017.

NCAA Football: Furman at North Carolina State
Roseboro and Pratt
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond those three, there are a lot of unknowns. Nick McCloud and Dexter Wright both played extensively in the secondary, and three of the penciled-in new starters are upperclassmen. The defensive line will still be stout in stature, with James Smith-Williams checking in at 262 on the weak side, Roseboro at 300 on the strong, and a dancing plethora of 300+ pounders on the interior. With much of the same at linebacker (Pratt is 6’3 245 as the world’s largest Will LB, the top three middle linebackers are all 230+), State should be physically imposing. They’ll either be slow, or on the J.R. Sweezy <airquote> workout plan <airquote>.

Despite all of that, Carolina has to show they can do something at the point of attack. Yes, despite all conventional wisdom, Carolina needs to man up and run the ball on State. The Heels put up the second-worst rushing performance against the Wolfpack on the season last year, which seems...all too familiar. Injuries hurt, Bradley Chubb & Friends hurt, but you can’t play scared. State’s defense was beatable through the air, and should continue to be, to an extent. As this is game 12, I’m not sure who Carolina’s quarterback will be, but he needs to be a threat with his feet...and to be able to make plays over the top.

Carolina D vs. State O

I’ve written 988 mostly snarky words about State to this point, so I’ll come out and say it: their offense should be dynamite. Ryan Finley is the odds-on favorite to be the ACC’s best quarterback, and that’s mostly because of a stacked daggum receiving corps. Excepting Samuels and Hines, their whole eight-deep of top pass-catchers returns. That includes Kelvin Harmon (1017 yards), Jakobi Meyers (727), and Stephen Louis (583 on 15.8 yards per catch). They will have to find another tight/end H-back to replace Samuels’ 76 receptions, but have Southern Cal transfer Cary Angeline, big back Reggie Gallaspy, and plenty of others to pick up the slack.

NCAA Football: Sun Bowl-Arizona State vs North Carolina State Ivan Pierre Aguirre-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Hines’ contribution as a running back is mitigated well, as stud freshman Ricky Person looked awesome in the Army All-American game. He and Gallaspy should be their 1-2 punch. Their offensive line returns two seniors on the left side, solid center Garrett Bradbury, and two sophomores on the right side whose names I remember as recruits— they should be excellent.

State kills you on efficiency more than anything else— they were 21st in the country by that measure (Bill C’s “success rate” stat) last year. This is backed up by what you see in individual stats: Finley completed 65% of his throws, and Harmon, Meyers, Louis, and Emeka Emezie all averaged at least 7.5 yards per TARGET (not reception)— you could literally expect 15 yards per three downs even with an incompletion.

They’re going to be like a quick-passing Georgia Tech— in the rare case you get them to third and long, you have to make sure to get them off the field.

Outlook

With a tear in my eye, I did it: I wrote a decently comprehensive preview on Carolina’s 12 opponents.

If you’ve been following along, this preview reads a lot like the Virginia Tech one: kinda salty, somewhat out for blood, and desperately seeking a way for Carolina to get a much-needed win against a rival.

I don’t think State is an ACC contender, but I do believe their offense gets it done in a shootout. Pack 38, Heels 34.