North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers said he thinks his team is ready to turn the tables on NC State this year.
There’s only one problem with that: Withers also said UNC thought it was ready to do that in each of the past four years. In a rivalry that is close in both proximity and lately also in score, nothing is a guarantee, but it’s the Tar Heels who enter Saturday’s game with the momentum in their favor.
“I think we’re headed on the right track,” Withers said.
Despite NC State’s recent 4-0 run in the series, both teams are coming off vastly different performances — and UNC is looking up, while NC State is still trying to find out which direction it’s heading. North Carolina earned a convincing 49-24 victory over a surging Wake Forest team last weekend, while NC State was beaten soundly — 34-0 — at Florida State. The Tar Heels became bowl-eligible; the Wolfpack still need three more wins to reach the postseason.
“We definitely feel like we are better than we’ve been showing, it’s just one game we’ll show it and the next game we won’t,” Wolfpack defensive tackle J.R. Sweezy said. “We just have to be consistent. That comes from a lot of young guys playing, a lot of guys are hurt. It’s just up and down, who’s going to play week to week. It’s kind of hard, but we’re confident we’re still a good team and we can beat the people we need to beat to go to a bowl game and win an ACC championship.”
Consistency has been a problem for both teams, but NC State didn’t get its first ACC victory of the season until two weeks ago at Virginia. (Coincidentally, UNC earned its first league win of the season over UVa, too.) The Wolfpack looked like an improved team following the bye week, and had put together back-to-back wins but was outplayed in every facet of the game in Tallahassee.
“The previous two weeks we played awfully well, the previous two games,” O’Brien said, referring to wins over Central Michigan and Virginia. “So you have to count it as a setback. There's still a lot of football left. You have these things back and forth during the season.
“Whether it's a long-term problem, we're going to start finding out here on Saturday.”
For North Carolina, the win over Wake Forest was an encouraging sign. Quarterback Bryn Renner played well, the defense forced five turnovers, and the offense racked up a season-high 562 total yards. It was the program’s most points in seven years and the most in an ACC game in a decade.
“I think that was our first complete game as a team,” said UNC receiver Erik Highsmith. “We played well in all three phases and that was good for our confidence and our team morale. Now we know what we’re really capable of.”
Whether or not that includes beating NC State remains to be seen.