College Football Preview: UNC vs. N.C. State
RALEIGH ó North Carolina State has struggled with injuries and putting together winning seasons in the past four years under Tom O’Brien. Beating rival North Carolina, however, hasn’t been nearly so difficult for the Wolfpack.
Heading into Saturday’s meeting, N.C. State (4-4, 1-3 ACC) has won all four meetings since O’Brien took over before the 2007 season. Three of those four have been close games, while the fourth was a memorable blowout of a ranked UNC team in Chapel Hill.
Regardless of the year or scenario, N.C. State has always saved its best for the Tar Heels (6-3, 2-3).
“We’ve played really well every time we played them,” senior defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy said. “I think it makes people play a little harder, do a little bit more of something to get something done. People just put in more effort, and I think that’s a big reason we’ve won the past couple of years.”
The Wolfpack’s recent domination of the rivalry has been a bit surprising considering the Tar Heels have found more onfield success in that span. Factoring out the past four meetings, North Carolina has gone 34-22 since the start of ’07 with a 17-16 record in league play. N.C. State, meanwhile, is just 25-29 overall and 11-21 in the ACC.
Yet O’Brien and the Wolfpack always got the better of the Tar Heels and former coach Butch Davis. While Davis often played down the buildup to the game, O’Brien embraced it. A win would mark the first time N.C. State has taken five straight meetings since 1988-92.
“Every school has a team that is probably their No. 1 opponent that they play during the course of a year,” he said. “You have to play all 12 games, but there’s certainly always a game that’s a little more important than the other ones, and this fits that for certainly our school.”
It’s a little different this year. The school fired Davis before the season amid the NCAA investigation into improper benefits and academic misconduct, handing the interim job to Charlotte native Everett Withers, who grew up wanting to play for the Tar Heels. He hasn’t shied from the rivalry, saying during a radio interview this week that North Carolina is the state’s “flagship” university and pointed out the Tar Heels’ graduation rates were better than the Wolfpack’s.
“After (the Wake Forest) ballgame, one of the first things we talked about was preparing for this week,” Withers said. “You can say we haven’t been (thinking about it), but I think we’ve had plenty of players who had this one marked on the calendar.”
The comments irked O’Brien so much that he fired several verbal jabs at UNC’s recent NCAA trouble to add some extra spice to this year’s game.
For the Tar Heels, however, the past four meetings have been motivation enough.
In 2007, N.C. State got a fourth-down stop inside its own 10 in the final seconds in a 31-27 victory. A year later, N.C. State went to Chapel Hill and won 41-10 to drive the home crowd to the exits early.
In 2009, an injury-ravaged Wolfpack team playing what amounted to its bowl game rallied from a 10-point halftime deficit to beat the Tar Heels 28-27 in the season finale. And last year, N.C. State got an improbable fourth-down touchdown on a deflected pass followed by a long punt return for a score to win 29-25 on the road.
But Russell Wilson isn’t around to torment the Tar Heels this year. After leading N.C. State to the past three wins, the quarterback transferred as a graduate student to Wisconsin.
“His experience would have changed the game for them,” UNC kick returner T.J. Thorpe said. “The fact he’s not playing I think that takes a lot off of our backs and relieves a lot of pressure we might have on our backs.”
North Carolina also has the motivation of helping redshirt freshman tailback Giovani Bernard become the first Tar Heel to run for 1,000 yards in a season in 14 years. Bernard needs 35 to reach the milestone.
The Tar Heels’ last win came in 2006, when John Bunting was coaching at UNC and Chuck Amato was at N.C. State.
“It’s an important game here,” O’Brien said. “It’s an important game because it’s important to our faculty, our staff, our alumni and our fan base. I think that’s what makes it different.”
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