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Keys To The Game
Run, run, run: The NC State offense should have a much easier time moving the ball against North Carolina, especially compared to the defense they played last week. The UNC defense ranks 70th or worse nationally and in the ACC's bottom three in scoring defense (70th nationally, 12th ACC, 27.7 points per game), total defense (87th, 14th, 428.1 yards per game) and rushing defense (98th, 14th, 203.1 rushing yards per game).
The Tar Heels have held only Boston College to less than 300 yards of total offense, and they allowed the Eagles to rack up 202 yards on the ground in that game. Virginia Tech, which finished with 341 yards from scrimmage, and Middle Tennessee State, which tallied 401 total yards, are the only UNC opponents that have been held to less than 200 yards on the ground this season.
NCSU should be able to exploit the UNC defense, and its weakest point matches up perfectly against the Pack's strength and biggest desire on offense — running the ball. Sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton should be able to build on the career game he enjoyed against FSU — which is ranked 29th nationally in rushing defense, even after it allowed him to run for 173 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries.
Limit Ebron: It's clear that North Carolina does not have a game-changer in this year's lineup like running back Giovani Bernard was for them last year. However, the Tar Heels do still have one of the most dominant players at his position in the country in junior tight end Eric Ebron.
He leads the Heels with 35 catches for 599 yards, and he ranks second nationally among all tight ends with an average of 85.6 receiving yards per game. It will be quite a challenge for the reshuffled secondary.
Fortunately for NC State, the new secondary lineup has done pretty well since fifth-year safety Jarvis Byrd went down with an injury. After the team logged just four interceptions in the first five games, they equaled that total in the last two contests. The passing yards allowed per game has also improved (from 231 to 208), but simply put the NCSU defense has not seen a tight end even close to Ebron yet this year.
Use emotion to your advantage: NC State will be at home in this rivalry game and will benefit from the home crowd's support. That will make a huge difference because NCSU, in recent history at least, plays much better inside the friendly confines of Carter-Finley Stadium than on the road. Since the start of the 2010 season, the Pack is 19-5 at home, including a 3-2 mark this year, compared to 8-14 in all other tilts.
The key is that State uses the home crowd and emotion that comes with it to its advantage. It's possible to get too amped up or start playing undisciplined when the crowd gets into it, but NCSU can't have that. The Pack must play inspired football, but stay under control. It has done a great job with penalties in the last two games with just six flags for 48 yards, but can't afford to take a step back now.
Turn the season around: The season has obviously not gone the way NC State envisioned it at the beginning of the year. The team's record sits at 3-4 overall with an 0-4 ledger in the ACC, but all is not lost — far from it, actually.
The Pack could still qualify for a bowl game — which should always be considered a success with a first-year coach taking over for one that was fired. The UNC game is always the most important for the fan base. Most importantly, the team could build some momentum for the stretch run of the season in this game. Getting the ship pointed in the right direction against the Tar Heels would be huge for NC State, and breaking the current three-game losing streak should help the team, which has recently gained several key players back from injury, restore its confidence.
Game outlook: Half of the last 10 games in this series have been decided by a touchdown or less, and only one of those contests has been decided by more than two touchdowns. There's a pretty good chance that this is another close one. In those close battles, it has been paramount that NC State takes care of the ball on offense and limits the explosive plays on defense. If the Pack wants to ensure it goes bowling this postseason, this game is pretty close to a must-win.
Five North Carolina Players To Watch
Junior tight end Eric Ebron — Ebron leads North Carolina with 35 receptions for 599 yards and three touchdowns through seven games. He is close to eclipsing last year's numbers of 40 catches for 625 yards and four scores. The 6-4, 245-pounder from Greensboro, N.C., exploded with eight catches for 199 yards and a 71-yard touchdown in the loss against Miami, and he added six receptions for 108 yards and a score at Georgia Tech. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has him ranked No. 12 overall for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Senior offensive left tackle James Hurst — The 6-7, 305-pounder has 42 career starts, which is easily the most on the Tar Heels. He earned national kudos for his job against South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in the season opener, grading out at 84 percent with six knockdowns. Hurst earned midseason first-team All-America honors from Yahoo! Sports. The 2012 first-team All-ACC selection is on the watch lists for the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.
Senior defensive end Kareem Martin — The 6-6, 265-pounder is second on the team with 47 tackles, and leads the Tar Heels with 9.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and six quarterback pressures. Martin has 34 career starts, which is second behind Hurst, and has made at least five tackles in every contest this season. Martin had a season-high 10 tackles at Georgia Tech, and added eight tackles and four tackles for loss against Miami.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Bryn Renner — The three-year starter has been solid for the Tar Heels despite their 2-5 record. He has completed 137 of 209 passes for 1,641 yards with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions this season. He has totaled 8,097 passing yards, 64 touchdowns, 24 interceptions and exceeded 300 yards passing in a game 10 times during his UNC career. Renner isn't slow, but the 6-3, 225-pounder also isn't a scrambler. Sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams has come in for a few series a game when the Tar Heels want a dual threat.
Sophomore middle linebacker Jeff Schoettmer — Schoettmer leads the Tar Heels with 57 tackles, to go along with one fumble recovery, 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack this season. Schoettmer has topped double figures in stops in a pair of games this season — 13 at Virginia Tech and 10 at Georgia Tech. The 6-1, 230-pound former walk-on appeared in 12 games last year and made 23 tackles. His father played linebacker at Duke, and his mother and brother played tennis and baseball, respectively, at Wake Forest.
Three Matchups To Watch
1. It isn't often defenses have to game plan to stop a tight end, but UNC junior Eric Ebron isn't the typical player at the position. The former Greensboro (N.C.) Smith High product was ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 18 player in North Carolina and the No. 21 tight end in the nation in the class of 2011. He picked up at least 12 offers, including one from NC State, before picking UNC early in the process.
Ebron had some concentration issues early in his UNC career with fumbles and dropped passes, but he found his groove last year. He had four catches for 79 yards in the win last year against NC State. The 6-4, 235-pounder has great speed for the position, and the Tar Heels even put him in the backfield for a fourth-down run that went for a first down last Saturday.
NC State senior outside linebacker D.J. Green, a former safety, could carry a big role in slowing down Ebron with help from the safeties and other linebackers when the Wolfpack play zone defense.
2. North Carolina lacks some of the playmaking talent of years past on defense, but senior defensive end Kareem Martin and, if fully healthy, junior outside linebacker Norkeithus Otis, supply the heat off the edge.
Martin, who is from Roanoke Rapids (N.C.) High, came alive for two sacks against Boston College in the third quarter last week. He leads the squad with 4.5 sacks, and three of them have occurred the last two games.
The 6-1, 240-pound Otis is from Gastonia (N.C.) Ashbrook and plays the "Bandit" position for the Tar Heels. He hasn't missed any games due to his health issues, but it has slowed him down of late. Otis has 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season.
NC State redshirt sophomore left tackle Joe Thuney and redshirt junior right tackle Tyson Chandler will likely both tangle with Martin, and be on the outlook for Otis if he blitzes.
3. One of the interesting subplots to what UNC does on offense is that they make it hard to know what personnel is in the game. NC State senior middle linebacker Robert Caldwell will need to play traffic cop because UNC will play four different running backs and two quarterbacks.
The one personnel group that will need special attention is when backup sophomore quarterback Marquise Williams is in the game. He sparked the Tar Heels on a pair of drives in last week's 34-10 win over Boston College. The 6-2, 215-pounder from Charlotte was 4-of-8 passing for 55 yards with a touchdown, and rushed seven times for 55 and a score. His ability to do direct quarterback runs brings a different dimension from starter Bryn Renner.
Three Questions With UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora
What is your impression of the rivalry with NC State?
"That's what makes college football so great is the rivalries that you have. The fans, the hatred from one or another — that's what's fun about college football, it really is. Just the excitement that rivalries give."
What stands out about NC State this season?
"I look at them, and they're playing a lot of young guys just like we are. I think they're trying to get a feel for where they are. I know that losing the quarterback [fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell] really early on was probably tough for them. They adjusted a little bit of what they were doing offensively. Now they've got the quarterback back, which has made it harder on us to try to find how they are going to attack us. I don't know what they are on offense. I don't know if they know yet.
"Defensively, I think they're really good up front. Those four guys that play up front are good football players. They really do a nice job. They're younger in other areas, but I would say they are more basic on defense. I think they're just playing and letting them play. They have a few blitzes, they don't bring a lot of blitzes. That's not what they want to do.
"Special teams are sound in everything they do. We're looking for weaknesses in how we can attack them, but they're sound in everything they do."
Are there enough high school players in the state to split between NC State and UNC?
"Definitely. There are good high school players in the state of North Carolina. We've got to get more of our share of them. That's the key."
Three Questions With NC State Head Coach Dave Doeren
What is your impression of UNC's offense this season?
"Offensively, they are using both quarterbacks now. That started a few weeks back and has kind of grown — particularly when they get into their star package with three backs or tight ends or receivers.
"Bryn [Renner] is playing well for them. He obviously is not a runner, but he is averaging 273 yards a game and has 10 touchdowns and four picks this season dealing with the injury that he had. It looks like Marquise [Williams] is being more efficient in what they're asking him to do as well.
"It all starts with their tight end [Eric Ebron], who is a very good player. He is averaging 17 yards per catch and is sixth in the league in catches. He is a very good player. We look forward to that challenge."
Has the UNC defense shown any improvement of late after holding down Boston College?
"Statistically early on in the season they struggled, but they've gotten a lot better. Their bye week was used the right way. They've improved, obviously in their games against BC and Miami.
"Also, in games like this you are going to get the best out of both teams. It is a fun game to be a part of as a player and as a coach."
What stands out about UNC's improvements over past few games?
"I thought defensively they did a nice job containing what BC was doing. They were able to score points early and force BC to catch up, which is hard to do.
"Offensively, they didn't make a lot of mistakes, and they have playmakers. Their quarterback got hurt and the other one came in, kind of similar to us, and had to do everything. The other guy came back and now they are doing what they are good at."