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Rivalry month: UNC collides with NC State to begin meaningful stretch


Adam Smith   | Times-News

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina State presents North Carolina with a rivalry showdown on Saturday, and the game, no doubt circled on the calendar for both, also marks the starting point for a stretch of heightened adversaries that the Tar Heels will encounter.

They’re aligned across four straight weeks on North Carolina’s schedule, a step-by-step-by-step-by-step challenge in Atlantic Coast Conference football that will require properly channeled energy and focus in the view of coach Mack Brown.

First, it’s a Top 25 matchup on Saturday against the visiting Wolfpack, North Carolina’s chief football rival. Next comes a road assignment at Virginia, the Tar Heels’ longest-running opponent throughout school history, followed by more in-state opponents, Duke on the road Nov. 7 and Wake Forest at home Nov. 14.

“We have a month of rival games, which is really, really unusual,” Brown said. “So it’ll be really interesting to see if me, our coaches, and our players can get everybody up at the height of their emotion for four straight weeks before we get a weekend off. Because that’s really hard to do, and I do know those four teams are going to play hard against us. So we’ve got to see if we’re ready with our program to play hard against them.”

N.C. State figures to have North Carolina’s full attention. “This is a game to see who’s tougher for real,” Tar Heels linebacker Tomon Fox said, and for the first time in 27 years of head-to-head meetings, both teams enter holding national rankings.

“In the state of North Carolina, you’re either N.C. State or Carolina where I’m from,” said Tar Heels running back Javonte Williams, a product of Wallace. “So I know how big of a game it is. We’ve got to go out, play hard, and do what we’ve got to do to get the win.”

Effort has become an underlined emphasis from Brown this week, after North Carolina tumbled behind last week at Florida State by margins as deep as 24-0 and 31-7, before mounting a considerable comeback but falling short in a 31-28 loss. That defeat dumped the Tar Heels from their top-five ranking and served up a reality check.

Saturday makes for the earliest meeting on the calendar between North Carolina and N.C. State since 2005, a result of the ACC’s modified scheduling plan for conducting this season amid coronavirus. The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have faced off in regular-season finales each of the last six seasons.

North Carolina has won six straight matchups against N.C. State with Brown at the helm. He’s in the second season of his second stint in charge of the Tar Heels. Meanwhile, Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren is 3-0 against North Carolina in games in Chapel Hill.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell threw for three touchdowns and 401 yards last season on N.C. State, a passing total that remains the sophomore’s career-best. The Tar Heels also feasted on turnovers that night in Raleigh, while torching the Wolfpack 41-10 to gain bowl eligibility.

Howell has spoken at length this week about the improvements in execution and competitive spirit that he has noticed from N.C. State’s defense this season. The Wolfpack is under a pair of new coordinators in Tim Beck on offense and Tony Gibson on defense.

“I think we’ve been overrated; I think they’ve been underrated,” Brown said, comparing the perceptions of his team and N.C. State.

Bailey Hockman is back as N.C. State’s first option at quarterback, with starter Devin Leary lost last week to a broken leg. Hockman quarterbacked the Wolfpack to a season-opening victory against Wake Forest and then started the team’s defeat at Virginia Tech, before Leary reclaimed the job. Leary missed an extended amount of preseason practice due to coronavirus contact tracing measures.

North Carolina defensive coordinator Jay Bateman noted this week Hockman is a left-handed thrower, calling that perhaps the main differentiator between Hockman and the right-handed Leary.

“It’s an in-state rivalry game,” North Carolina linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “Something to really get excited about especially this early in the year. Usually, we’re facing them in the last game. So it’s something to really get excited about, especially coming off a loss against Florida State.”

Here are some other areas worth watching Saturday as the 14th-ranked Tar Heels (3-1 overall, 3-1 ACC) tangle with 23rd-ranked N.C. State (4-1, 4-1):

RUN FOR IT

With defensive tackle Alim McNeill and linebackers Isaiah Moore and Payton Wilson packing strength up the middle, N.C. State has allowed an average of 101 rushing yards during its three-game winning streak, defeats of Pittsburgh, Virginia and Duke.

But North Carolina features the ACC’s No. 3 runner in Michael Carter (119.5 yards per game) and No. 5 runner in Williams (100.5 yards per game).

On the other side, N.C. State’s Zonovan “Bam” Knight has rushed for at least 94 yards in three games. Florida State running back La’Damian Webb and quarterback Jordan Travis both topped 100 rushing yards last week against the Tar Heels, in what has been a worsening trend for Bateman’s defense.

TACKLING TROUBLES

Brown said the Tar Heels missed 19 tackles against Florida State and have whiffed on 54 tackles through four games this season, an increasing concern after North Carolina benefitted from swarming defensive efforts against Syracuse and Boston College to open the season.

Bateman said reversing those worrisome numbers can include defenders maintaining the proper leverage and angles in attempting tackles to keep ball-carriers contained, thus putting the rest of the defense in position to recover from any misses.

“When we’ve done that, we’ve played really good defense here,” Bateman said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we can improve on to get back to it.”

ROAD REFRESHERS

Under Doeren, who’s in his eighth season, N.C. State has won all three meetings against North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Those victories include a 28-21 triumph in 2016 when the Tar Heels were 8-3 that Doeren said “probably saved my job,” and a 34-28 overtime win in 2018, a rally for the Wolfpack that ended with a fracas between the teams on the field after N.C. State scored the decisive touchdown.

“When you go in a locker room after an emotional win on either side, you’re going to feel that and you can’t just play it off,” Doeren said. “I mean, it means a lot to you.”