This Saturday, the UNC Tar Heel football team will load up the bus, head east on I-40, and enter the unfriendly confines of Carter-Finley Stadium.
It’s the 113th meeting between Carolina and State (UNC leads all-time 68-38-6). Both teams come into Saturday’s showdown with 8-3 records, but NC State swaggers in riding a four-game win streak while UNC limps into Raleigh having lost three of its last five.
NC State has also won the last two vs UNC in dramatic fashion, largely due to a couple of epic collapses on Carolina’s part. Still, Vegas is somehow leaning toward the Tar Heels on the road, with the current line set at UNC -2.5.
Let’s take a look at three things to watch in the regular season finale.
What is the mindset of the Tar Heels after the loss to Clemson?
UNC already knew the ACC Championship game was off the table after Louisville won its early matchup last week. The Tar Heels appeared to be fired up anyway at the beginning of the Clemson game. That fire later fizzled and Carolina looked fatigued and overpowered once the Tigers took the lead.
How will the Heels handle another letdown and the prospect of playing in a bowl game of little importance? Will they hang their heads and put forth a lackluster effort? Or will they bring maximum intensity to finish strong and exact revenge on their rivals from Raleigh?
We know Mack Brown is not fond of State. We know Drake Maye doesn’t think too highly of State. We know Dave Doeren dislikes Carolina. And we know those 56,000 wolfie fingers in the air hate Carolina. All good reasons to bring the thunder when you run out of that tunnel. Use the howling and the booing as tackling fuel.
Will Drake Maye return to Superman form?
Clemson’s defense made Drake Maye look like Clark Kent, with constant pressure in his face and some outstanding plays in the secondary. The Tigers held Maye to his worst completion percentage in his career, ending up 16-36 passing to go along with 209 yards.
The crowd noise was also a major factor in the always-raucous Death Valley, rattling Maye and causing multiple false starts on the offensive line. He won’t have to deal that this week, but Carter-Finley is no walk in the park either.
The Wolfpack faithful love to hate the Tar Heels and their recent success in the rivalry doesn’t make them want this one any less. Without a doubt, they’ll be screaming until their faces match their shirts. Drake and the O-line will have to keep their composure and make good decisions, or they could find themselves back on the same sinking ship as last week.
Considering that at least a few Tar Heels will opt to sit out the bowl game, this very well may be the last time we see Drake Maye in a Carolina uniform. Here’s hoping his (potentially) final performance is savory, not sour.
UNC’s offense vs. NC State’s defense
The other position group battle (between NC State’s offense and UNC’s defense) leaves a lot to be desired on both sides. The Tar Heel defense has struggled against the run in most games this season, especially in the 4th quarter when they look worn down and start getting gashed. But NC State doesn’t have a great rushing attack, with QB Brennan Armstrong leading the team in yardage (by far). And freshman wideout Kevin Concepcion is their only big threat on the outside.
No, the marquee matchup is the clash between UNC’s high-powered offense and NC State’s stout defense.
Coming in ranked 3rd nationally, the Tar Heels have enough playmakers to beat you in several different ways. The key is for OC Phil Lindsey to strive for balance between the run game and the pass game. Keep the defense honest and keep them guessing. Don’t forget you have Drake Maye and Omarion Hampton, and don’t get tunnel vision on either one or the other.
For the NC State defense (22nd in the nation) the star is the hard-charging, heavy-hitting LB Peyton Wilson. He leads the team in tackles with 123, flies all over the field, and will definitely be playing on Sundays. The O-line and backs or tight ends assigned to blitz pick-up always have to be aware of where #11 is, or he’ll make you pay.
All aspects of the game are critical in a coin flip contest like this one, but expect the most fireworks when the Tar Heel O and Wolfpack D are on the field.