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UNC vs. NC State: Three Things to Watch

Just because Carolina’s stretch goals are gone, doesn’t mean this season can’t end on a high. First up, making NC State feel low!

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Carolina will no doubt be disappointed to lose to a Georgia Tech team they should have beaten for the second year in a row. Mack Brown warned anyone who would listen that the last game before the end-of-season rivalry tilt against NC State was a trap game, but with the Coastal division already secured, UNC succumbed to fate, failing to score again after mounting a 17-0 lead.

Carolina finds itself with another opportunity to get right before their ACC Championship match-up with Clemson, this time against a down NC State. The Wolfpack are wounded, with their preseason Heisman hopeful quarterback Devin Leary out for the season and freshman MJ Morris—who impressed in wins over Virginia Tech and Wake Forest before coming back down to earth a little against Boston College—possibly out as well.

UNC won’t want to hear anything about how great it is for their defense to go up against a third-string quarterback. Last week, Georgia Tech’s #3 and #4 quarterbacks didn’t do anything spectacular, but kept the offense on the field and drained the clock so that Drake Maye couldn’t affect the final outcome.

So essentially, Carolina had a dress rehearsal against a team without their preferred quarterback and a stout defense. How can they get a better outcome on Black Friday? Here are three things to watch.

Drake Maye needs to shake it off

Carolina’s freshman quarterback hadn’t really put a foot wrong all season, guiding the Tar Heels to a 9-1 record, and even in their only loss against Notre Dame, put up eye-watering numbers. The Georgia Tech game came with external pressure, as Maye’s Heisman buzz was building all week, and the expectation was that Carolina would win big, and Maye would put up huge numbers to justify his place as a Heisman frontrunner.

Now that that dream has fizzled, Maye can simplify his focus to the opponent in front of him and nothing else. It may be an opportunity he relishes.

It won’t be easy. Antoine Green, who was out and sorely missed against Georgia Tech, is not guaranteed to be ready in time, and with the game coming a day earlier, the clock is working against him. NC State still has the #21 ranked defense in college football, giving up 5.21 ypp. Maye and UNC will want to stretch those stats out with big plays in the passing game and from select design QB runs, although Longo will want to limit the amount of hits his quarterback takes from Isaiah Moore and especially Payton Wilson.

Tight ends need to step up

With Antoine Green a doubt and Josh Downs likely to be double-covered throughout the game, Friday would be a great day for Carolina’s tight ends to bust loose. Would you believe it if I told you that Bryson Nesbit has not scored a touchdown since the Virginia Tech game, and Kamari Morales hasn’t since Duke?

NC State boasts tremendous cover corners in sophomores Aydan White and Shyheim Battle, who have six interceptions on the season between them. Isaiah Moore is good in coverage, but if Nesbit can match-up against Wilson, he may find some space to stride out to the end zone.

Forcing the Wolfpack to solidify coverage in the middle might open action on the outside for JJ Jones to show the speed/hands combo he did at App State and Miami, and get UNC’s offense back on track.

Ben Finley returns!

Carolina’s defense is not good at sacking quarterbacks. Whether that’s because the Tar Heel defenders are not of the quality required, or by Gene Chizik’s design, the bottom line is that UNC does not pressure quarterbacks. So for a mid-tier quarterback like Ben Finley, he may have a chance to rise above his station and put some passes together if he’s not made uncomfortable by Carolina’s pass rush—or lack thereof.

Astute Tar Heel fans will remember Ben Finley from the COVID game in 2020. Even though that game was the second blowout of NC State in a row, it was only a three-point game at halftime. At the end of the day, though, Ben Finley didn’t exactly light the world on fire, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions, one in hilarious fashion that—truth be told—should have been a touchdown (go to the 7:05 mark of the video below).

All this to say, most teams would relish the chance to have a third-string quarterback under center in a huge rivalry game. The problem is, Carolina has made Notre Dame and Georgia Tech’s back-ups look like stars. What makes us confident that they’ll bottle up NC State’s?

UNC’s defensive line depth has been gutted by injury, but there’s still raw talent there that should be performing better. Carolina can’t count on scoring 42 points against NC State’s defense, so it’ll be imperative that they keep the Wolfpack from casting offensive magic in Kenan Stadium.