Bowl eligibility is secured. An overall winning record is not yet guaranteed. And NC State is on the precipice of winning the ACC Atlantic Division. Standing in their way is familiar foe UNC, the flagship university of North Carolina.
The Wolfpack will be eager to beat the Tar Heels on Black Friday, but in order to do so, they’ll have to beat Sam Howell, something they’ve never done. With the talent around him downgraded from last season’s historical offense, this seems like their best chance to do so in front of a roaring home crowd. Here are three things to watch as NC State looks to beat Carolina.
Sam Howell returns
UNC’s best-ever quarterback in a rivalry game to potentially wrap up his career? Yeah, I’d like to see that.
Sam Howell sat out last week’s tune-up against Wofford to rest his injured left arm, and reports suggest he’ll suit up on Friday after a presumably Bo-licious Thanksgiving. Carolina, under Howell’s guidance, has thrashed NC State in his first two meetings, with a cumulative 89-31 margin. The Wolfpack will be eager to return some of that medicine, especially with UNC experiencing a down season. A really down season.
One thing NC State never contended with in those two heavy losses, though, was Howell the runner. This added offensive dimension may slow down some of NCSU’s linebacker play, as they’ll need to diagnose whether or not Howell is taking off, or running RPO action to bring them downhill to open up space behind them. State has the horses to run with Carolina on offense, especially if the Heels have a standard nighttime road-game performance (O-3 this season).
If Howell has an exemplary performance, though, he has enough juice to pull out a win.
Can the secondary cope?
The loss of Ja’Qurious Conley on the first play of the game against Wofford hurts, especially with the match-up against NC State’s dynamic receiver Emeka Emezie. The super senior is having a great season, tallying 690 yards from 55 catches to go with four touchdowns. He is a deep ball threat who knows how to use his size. Conley would have been tremendously helpful covering him and/or putting hits on him after the catch.
The Wolfpack feature a trio of receivers—Emezie, Devin Carter, and Thayer Thomas—that have all played at least four years, are at least 6 feet tall, and have at least 500 yards receiving this year. Josh Downs and some other dudes, they are not. Their aerial attack is a real “all hands on deck” situation.
The Rude Boyz are also missing Don Chapman for the rest of the season, and Storm Duck has been up and down after his triumphant return from injury during the Wake Forest game. How the secondary stands up to NC State’s receiver corps, and a feisty Devin Leary, will go a long way to determining if Carolina can pull off the upset.
Getting off the field on third down
Carolina’s defense continued to demonstrate a troubling inability to get off the field on third down against Wofford last Saturday. On the day, the Terriers got past the sticks six times on third down, while being stopped only four times (UNC got two additional third down stops, but gave up a first on the fourth down attempt). No disrespect to Wofford, but they’re streets behind NC State’s offensive attack. Carolina is surrendering 4.6 yards per rush on the season, which makes it tough to force punts on third and short.
If the Tar Heels can’t make timely stops, or better yet force turnovers, the offense will have to hold serve on every possession. That puts a lot of pressure on Phil Longo’s crew, who have shown explosive capability, but often mixed with random fits of discombobulation, especially in the red zone. Carolina’s final drive of the Wofford game comes to mind, when the Heels could not punch the ball in from the goal line, leading to a turnover on downs. UNC may very well find themselves in a similar situation against State, possibly with the game on the line.