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UNC vs. NC State: Game Preview

It’s a game that means nothing and everything.

Georgia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

It’s a busy sports weekend, right? You’re taking a peek at this as you prepare to down your Thanksgiving meal, and that’s with a UNC basketball appetizer against Portland. We’ll have basketball and football games tomorrow, and then another basketball game Sunday. It’s truly a cornucopia of UNC sports, though here’s hoping it doesn’t include anything that’ll cause food poisoning.

Tomorrow, N.C. State will roll into town in order to try and salvage a season that has gotten away from them in a hurry. Local sports talk wants to compare them to UNC’s wasted season last year, but the problem is the comparison isn’t that apt. Sam Howell was healthy in all of their losses, and the side of the ball that was expected to lead the team to glory has mostly followed through. As UNC fans can attest, at some point the defense can only do so much, and when the offense just falls off a cliff, so will the defense.

The Wolfpack go into this game with a two-game losing streak thanks to Louisville and Boston College. The disappointing loss on their Senior Night came as promising quarterback M.J. Morris suffered an injury that may have ended his season. At 7-4 they’ll be going to a bowl, and this game could determine whether it’s one that’s similar to their canceled Holiday Bowl, or if it’s closer to the Duke’s Mayo Bowl that Carolina went to. For a team that had outside dreams of the New Year’s Six, that’s a crash to Earth.

These two teams are going to bring out all the stops as it could easily be the game that their 30-some odd seniors will point to as trying to accomplish something memorable to a rougher-than-expected year. No rivalry game is a trap game, but anyone thinking the Wolfpack has given up on the year should know better by now.

Trying to figure out State on offense is almost a fruitless exercise. M.J. Morris, the replacement for Devin Leary, missed last weekend’s game and State has been unclear as to whether or not he’ll play Friday. Rumors were that he’s done for the season, then rumors hit that he’s practiced with the team. It’s in State’s best interest on a short week to at least make Carolina think they’ll see Morris, he’s been their most successful replacement since Leary’s injuries, going 50-82, 610 yards, seven touchdowns in the air, and adding 78 yards on the ground. The offense has played with the most confidence since he took over full-time, and with the revelation he was hurt during the BC game, it at least explains that loss.

Last weekend with Morris out, NC State went back to a duo of Ben Finley and Jack Chambers. Finley was not good last weekend: he went 16-35 against the Cardinals, for only 202 yards, one touchdown, one interception, though Chambers was only 2-7 for 13 yards himself. Neither really ran for much — Finley had a 14 yard run and Chambers had 7, but both were sacked enough to basically negate those runs. Now that it’s possible for three quarterbacks to play, and seeing the success Georgia Tech had varying up their quarterbacks on the Heels, it’s probably a fair bet that whomever starts under center won’t play the full game.

State’s best rusher is Jordan Houston, and he’s only accumulated 500 yards total this season. Demie Sumo-Karngbaye follows this up with 305 yards, but with the forecast for rain on Friday, one would expect State to take advantage of what has been a real weakness of the Carolina defense all season and run the ball. In short, hope your defense can hold back UNC and then manage possessions with a defense that’ll bend and mostly not break.

There’s a ton of intrigue when Carolina is on offense and State is on defense. As noted earlier this week, having Antoine Green to stretch the field will be huge. State will likely look at what Georgia Tech did to sack Drake Maye five times last weekend, and they will be working with a better front seven than the Yellow Jackets. If Green is healthy enough to punish the 1-on-1 coverage he would get and Maye can get the ball to him, then it may not matter how good the front seven is.

That’s a big if, of course. Josh Downs is coming off his most disappointing day as a Tar Heel with the loss against Georgia Tech, and he’s clearly not playing anywhere near 100%. Him and Green will need to be serious enough to where State will have to concentrate on them, and even if they don’t have high numbers, it will likely mean the tight ends as well as J.J. Jones, Gavin Blackwell, and Kobe Paysour will have room to make plays.

In the backfield, the front for NC State’s defense is going to make life tough for Elijah Green, Omarion Hampton, George Pettaway, DJ Jones, and the others. Teams are only averaging 101 yards a game on the Wolfpack, and with the trouble the offensive line has had getting big games for their backs, you can’t imagine there’ll be that many big runs. OC Phil Longo will at least try to establish the game, but as they’ve already shown they can turn short passes into a run game, here’s hoping they aren’t as slow to abandon this as they were against Pitt if they lack success.

It’s a rivalry game that literally is JUST a rivalry game. This is NC State’s regular season finale, while UNC looks to head to Charlotte and upset Clemson next weekend. You normally would be skeptical of how Carolina would recover, but when you look at intangibles — Mack against in-state competition and being 3-0 so far this year, the motivation to avenge for last year’s catastrophic ending, and going into Charlotte with momentum — and add the questions around NC State’s quarterback, it seems to point to where Carolina should pull out the win.

Prediction: UNC 28, NC State 17.