NC State redshirt junior strong safety Earl Wolff felt as if he was surrounded by North Carolina fans while growing up in Raeford, N.C.
Wolff decided to go the other way and became an NC State fan in football, and Duke for men's basketball. He has cherished going undefeated against North Carolina since his arrival in Raleigh. NC State carries a four-game winning streak against its rivals going into the 12:30 p.m. Saturday game at Carter-Finley Stadium.
"Almost everybody I know is a UNC fan," Wolff said. "That is why growing up among UNC fans, I decided to be different. I kind of never liked them, but they are a good team and will be playing hard Saturday. We'll have to bring our A game.
"Four straight, that's kind of a big thing, but we are trying to make it five this Saturday. It's a big game and a must win."
Wolff didn't know he would one day get the chance to play for his favorite school and become part of the heated football rivalry with the Tar Heels until the summer going into his senior year. One week at the Wolfpack June elite camp helped alter his life.
Wolff put on a show in front of the NC State offers and earned his first scholarship offer. He didn't take long in giving a verbal commitment, picking the Wolfpack on June 28, 2007.
The former Hoke County High was getting interest from North Carolina, East Carolina, Old Dominion and Elon, but NC State was his first scholarship offer and the only one that mattered.
"They are the people that noticed me and everybody else kind of brushed me off," Wolff said.
The 6-foot, 201-pound Wolff ranks second on the team with 74 tackles, has three caused fumbles, and one recovered fumble. He also helped cause an interception against the Seminoles with a big hit, that led to Manning grabbing the ball in mid-air.
Wolff and the Wolfpack don't have much margin for error after the Florida State loss. NC State has to win three out of the last four games to become bowl eligible.
"It's a big week and one of the biggest weeks of the season," Wolff said. "Not to mention, we lost last week. We are trying to overcome that loss with a win this week against Carolina. We have to play our hearts out because we know they are coming to play."
Wolff pointed out that linebackers Audie Cole and Terrell Manning have done a good job of getting the players fired up this week. The Wolfpack are coming off a humbling 34-0 loss at Florida State last Saturday. Practices usually have a different tone during UNC week.
"It's always bad to lose, especially with the way we did," Wolff said. "We are going to put that behind us and be ready for Saturday.
"We don't have a lot of guys that are rah-rah, but Terrell [Manning] is. He is always every day, it never fails. Audie Cole is too, but he won't do a lot of talking, but he likes to have fun. We just want to come out here and have fun every day."
North Carolina might not have the depth of playmakers on offense, but have some explosive individuals. Redshirt freshman running back Giovani Bernard has rushed for 965 yards on 168 carries and 11 touchdowns, plus added 33 catches for 243 and a score.
"He [Bernard] is very slippery and reminds me of the running backs at UVa and kind of like the running back at Cincinnati," Wolff said. "He is a great running back and we are ready for the challenge."
UNC senior wide receiver Dwight Jones combines great size at 6-4 and 225 pounds and speed, and has caught 54 passes for 841 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Erik Highsmith has added 34 receptions for 492 yards and three scores.
"We are working on playing fast and technically sound," Wolff said. "We are working on a lot of tackling this week.
"Tackling is all about heart. It's how bad do you want to get that guy down. This week, we are emphasizing swarming to the ball, so if a guy does miss a tackle, we have someone else to clean it up."
Wolff figures UNC will throw deep against him and junior free safety Brandan Bishop, and also try a variety of formations.
"Most likely they will, but we are going to challenge them too," Wolff said. "We know they'll throw it over the top. Brandan and I will have to make a lot of plays."
"Big receiver, physical, runs solid routes, and he's a pretty good player," Wolff said. "I can't wait to compete against him. We have a lot of big-time challenges coming up."