North Carolina travels to N.C. State Saturday (12:30, ACC Network) for this year's installment of the in-state rivalry. The Wolfpack enters the game 3-4 and winless in four conference games.
Quarterback Marquise Williams has brought a different wrinkle to UNC's improving offense.
Tar Heels' Advantage
North Carolina’s offense continues to hum along with Bryn Renner and Marquise Williams splitting reps at quarterback. The two traded snaps seamlessly against Boston College, and the Tar Heels’ had their best offensive showing to date. Coach Larry Fedora said his staff has opened the playbook completely for Williams, meaning he’s no longer used exclusively in run-heavy packages. N.C. State has been susceptible to the pass this season, allowing 224.4 passing yards per game and 12 passing touchdowns through seven games.
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren hasn’t had a dream first season, starting 0-4 in ACC play, which includes a loss to Wake Forest. But, UNC linebacker Jeff Schoettmer put it best about N.C. State when he said, “No matter how their season is going so far, they’re going to be ready to play.” Renner called Carter-Finley Stadium one of the top-five most hostile atmospheres he’s experienced through his college career. A loss could doom either team to a bowl-less postseason, so the intensity of the rivalry will be as high as ever despite the disappointing starts to both teams’ seasons.
Tar Heels' Concern
UNC has allowed more than 200 rushing yards five out of seven games this year and ranks dead last in the ACC in rushing defense. The Tar Heels have allowed 13 rushing touchdowns already this season, and their last two opponents have run for a combined 436 yards and three scores. Meanwhile, N.C. State ranks fifth in the conference in rushing offense. Sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton, who rushed for 173 yards last week against Florida State, is starting to hit his stride.
While N.C. State should find success moving the ball on the ground, the Wolfpack likely won’t be able to take advantage of the Tar Heels’ generous secondary. Quarterback Brandon Mitchell will be playing just his second game since injuring his foot in the season-opener, and the Wolfpack has only thrown four touchdown passes all season. Meanwhile, UNC is coming off a passing defense clinic against Boston College, who only managed 59 yards through the air last weekend.
Player to watch: Junior wide receiver Bryan Underwood
It’s been a roller coaster-like ride for junior wide receiver Bryan Underwood since last August. In 2012, Underwood hauled in 10 touchdown catches and emerged as one of the ACC’s most-productive receivers. When first-year coach Dave Doeren brought in his version of the spread offense, it made sense to assume that Underwood would be the recipient of even more red zone passes.
Once the Doeren era began, though, Underwood’s usage plummeted. He only caught eight passes for 56 yards in the Wolfpack’s first three games combined. But, in the four games since, Underwood has shot back up as N.C. State’s leading receiver. In those contests, he’s grabbed 24 passes for 326 yards.
Underwood can attack opponents with his feet, too. The junior has rushed 12 times for 135 yards in the past four games. Against Clemson, Underwood took an end-around for an 83-yard touchdown, but it was called back on a blown out-of-bounds call. Earlier in that game, he took another end-around all the way down the sideline but actually did step out.
Underwood showed up for this rivalry game last year, pulling in six catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns against a UNC secondary that has much of the same personnel.
Five more to keep an eye on
Brandon Mitchell, quarterback
Mitchell hit the ground running in 2013, leading N.C. State on 65- and 75-yard touchdown drives on the first two possessions of the season. But, the Arkansas transfer suffered a broken foot later that game and was out until last weekend. If healthy, Pete Thomas may also receive reps.
Shadrach Thornton, running back
After exploding onto the scene midway through his freshman season in 2012, it took a few games for Thornton to get going in his sophomore campaign. He’s earned the start in N.C. State’s last three games and has responded well to the increased work load, averaging more than five yards per carry.
Robert Caldwell, linebacker
Despite playing exclusively on special teams last year, Caldwell earned the starting Mike position this season. He leads the Wolfpack with 54 tackles – which ranks No. 12 in the ACC – and 8.5 tackles for losses. He’s also tallied a sack and a pass break-up through seven games.
Dontae Johnson, safety
Johnson is one of the Wolfpack’s most veteran players, having played in 45 games and started 23. After moving from cornerback to safety this season, he’s registered three interceptions already. He’s also second on the team in tackles with 47. His 35 solo tackles are the team’s best.
Niklas Sade, kicker
Sade has been, perhaps, the Wolfpack’s most consistent performer in the 2013 season. The junior has hit 13 of his 15 attempts, including a 48-yard game-winner in the last minute of a victory against Richmond. Sade’s 33 starts make him N.C. State’s most-experienced player.
Prediction: While it likely won't be an incredibly well-played game, it should be close.
UNC 28, N.C. State 24