North Carolina's defense has struggled this season, especially against the run.
The Tar Heels have allowed 203.1 rushing yards per game, which has helped opponents average 27.7 points per game. Boston College star running back Andre Williams rushed for 172 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries in last week's 34-10 loss to the Tar Heels. If those numbers sound familiar, NC State sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton rushed for 173 yards and two scores on 23 carries in the loss at Florida State last Saturday.
NC State will be trying to establish the run game again Saturday in its home game against North Carolina.
"I thought Shad played hard," NCSU offensive coordinator Matt Canada said. "He wanted the ball and he wanted to play. He ran hard and that is good to see. Shad has gotten better the last five weeks or so. He is playing at a high level right now."
Canada said Boston College's running game is different than NC State, but Thornton could be in line for another good performance.
"BC is a different team than we are with their scheme and what they do," Canada said. "They do a very good job of running the football, but you have to score points too. Carolina did a great job of keeping them out of the end zone. Stats are what they are, but you have to score points. That is something we have to do a much better job of."
If Thornton and the run game can help NC State "stay on track" and avoid second and longs, and third and longs, that will take some of the pressure off Arkansas graduate transfer Brandon Mitchell, who struggled in his return from injury against the Seminoles.
"We have to stay on schedule and that is the way offenses move the ball," Canada said. "Brandon didn't play well at all and he's aware of that. It was a pretty stiff challenge to come back and play against a team of that caliber. Regardless of who you play against, he has to play better than that. He knows that and he will."
Canada also expects to get fifth-year senior wide receiver Rashard Smith more involved. He returned from his injury against FSU, but was limited to two catches for 19 yards, and didn't get any rushing attempts. Redshirt junior wide receiver Bryan Underwood was listed as "questionable" on this week's injury report, along with freshman wide receiver Johnathan Alston.
"There are so many plays in the game and obviously Rashard was coming back," Canada said. "Florida State did some good things, and obviously we didn't do enough to score enough points."
UNC senior defensive end Kareem Martin could draw some extra attention from NC State's offensive line, which has reassembled following some early-season injuries. Martin had a pair of momentum changing sacks against the Eagles in the third quarter last week.
"There are always a couple of players that present unique challenges and we have to know where they are, and have a plan," Canada said. "They have a good scheme, very aggressive and they blitz a bunch. They are all over the place and do a great job of disrupting offenses."
Canada has watched the film of last year's game, which North Carolina topped NC State 43-35. Former NCSU quarterback Mike Glennon passed for 467 yards and five touchdowns against UNC's secondary, which has many of the same players returning.
"It is two new teams and everything is different, but there are some similar players at spots," Canada said.