RALEIGH, N.C. — Who would have thought after NC State started out 3-1 and in-state rival North Carolina started 1-4 that the teams would have the exact same record at this point in the season? Yet, here we are, and after UNC’s first win at Carter-Finley Stadium since 2005, both teams are 3-5.
The overall records might be identical, but the ACC records aren’t (UNC is 2-3, NC State is 0-5) and neither is the trajectory of their seasons.
The Tar Heels have now won two straight games after narrowly missing an upset over No. 7 Miami, while NC State has lost four in a row.
Bowl eligibility that looked like a lock mere weeks ago seems out of reach with games left at Duke, at Boston College, East Carolina and Maryland at home. With UNC, bowl eligibility seemed impossible after a 1-5 start. But three wins away now, the Tar Heels host a bad Virginia team, travel to Pitt and then host Old Dominion and Duke. It’s not going to be easy, but it looks increasingly more possible than it did before.
1. This game might not mean much outside the state, but it means plenty to the teams that play in it and their fans. No, this wasn’t a game to determine first or second place in their respective ACC Divisions. Yes, it was a game between two teams with losing records fighting for a chance at bowl eligibility. But don’t get it twisted — this rivalry is real, and there are plenty of hard feelings between the fan bases. And the players, too.
UNC tight end Eric Ebron had plenty to say this week, starting after last week’s win over Boston College. It was mostly in good fun, but eventually his coaches told him to pipe down, and … well, I’ll let him explain it.
“(The coaches) just said, ‘Be careful what you say’ and then I went on and wrote something else and they were like, ‘Okay, now you’ve got to stop.’ And I was like, ‘Hold on, I ain’t done yet’ and then I wrote one more thing,” Ebron said. “And then they were like, ‘Okay, no, for real, seriously, you’ve got to stop’ and I was like, ‘Okay’, and then I stopped.”
Ebron finished with nine catches for 70 yards, and his comments became a topic of discussion all week. He did start off the game with a catch and fumble (that he recovered) for a 16-yard loss, but after that, he didn’t drop many more. He caught eight of the ten passes thrown his way after that for a total of 99 yards.
A lot of the lead-up to this game focused on the rivalry since neither team was having a great season, but the rivalry and animosity between the fan bases does add a certain palpable feeling to the atmosphere.
After the game, some of the UNC players danced on NC State’s midfield logo, which was changed late last week to a wolf head inside of an outline of the state of North Carolina. NC State’s marketing team has also used “Our State” as a slogan, and UNC players were chanting that as well after the game.
Doeren said his NC State team would remember it “for the next 364 days”.
As for the ownership of the state, Fedora had his own thoughts.
“As far as I know, it’s always been the Tar Heel State and always will be,”Fedora said.
2. Multiple quarterbacks? NC State got its starter Brandon Mitchell back for last week’s game at Florida State, and he (understandably) had a rough afternoon. But at home, against a more accommodating UNC defense, it was thought that he would play better. At first, he did. He started off 5-of-6 for 44 yards in the first quarter, adding eight rushes for 52 yards and a touchdown.
The next three quarters, he completed 5-of-16 passes for 86 yards and two interceptions. He did rush 13 more times for 53 yards, but it was bad enough that he was pulled in favor of backup Pete Thomas with 6:20 to go for what could have been NC State’s game-tying touchdown.
After the game, NC State head coach Dave Doeren — who had said before the season that he was likely to use both quarterbacks — was noncommittal about who would be the starter, saying they’d have to watch tape and make a decision. “I’m emotional right now,” Doeren said after the game. “I’m probably not going to say exactly how I feel.”
UNC, on the other hand, is doing just fine using two quarterbacks. Since using both senior Bryn Renner and sophomore backup Marquise Williams, the Tar Heels are 2-1 with only a narrow loss to Miami at home. And the offense has certainly looked much better.
Renner’s first two drives of the game were disastrous (not all his doing, except the first drive, which ended on an interception). Williams came in and got the offense moving, but Fedora said after the game that Williams was going in on the third series regardless of what happened on the first two. After that, Fedora would often switch the two quarterbacks from play to play.
The way he rotates the quarterbacks doesn’t always make sense to the average spectator, but it seems to be working.
“We feed off each other,” Renner said after the game. “We do a great job of giving each other tips when the other one’s out there and vice versa. So I think we’re working well together right now.”
3. Trick plays changed the momentum of the game for both teams. It was all NC State early as the Wolfpack took a 10-0 lead, but UNC marched down the field and scored to cut it to 10-7 and it felt like momentum was shifting back. NC State got it back and faced a 4th and 8 at its own 30-yard line after a quick three-and-out.
Instead of punting the ball back to UNC, the Wolfpack ran a fake punt where linebacker Robert Caldwell ran for a loss of a yard to the 29-yard line and UNC took over on downs, scoring a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead four plays later.
“I thought we had it,” Doeren said. “That’s on me. They gave us the look that we saw on film earlier in the week, and so I thought we had a chance there. They did a good job defensively to stop us.”
UNC didn’t look surprised by the fake attempt, and wide receiver Quinshad Davis said as much afterwards.
“I think Coach (Fedora) had planned for that and the guys recognized it really well. That just got the momentum on our side,” Davis said.
And Davis was the beneficiary of another trick play. Renner took the snap, then passed it backwards to wide receiver Ryan Switzer, who found Davis streaking midfield wide open for a touchdown.
That play gave UNC a 21-16 lead in the second quarter.
Switzer didn’t play quarterback in high school, and of the wide receivers, Davis is usually the one who throws. But Davis said that the Tar Heels put in the play this week — and that it wasn’t really working in practice.
“They had a play where Switzer, they just felt like, because he runs the outside bubble play so the people just committed on that and he just threw it over the top,” Davis said. “Sometimes it worked, but sometimes it’d be … ugh, you know? … It wouldn’t get picked off, but he’d just throw it kind of wild. But in the game, it worked, so.”
4. Mistake Fest. It’s easy to see why both of these teams are below .500. Neither has elite-level talent, certainly, but both have a tendency to make the types of mistakes that cost teams games. And that was no different today.
“It came down to mistakes for us,” Doeren said. “In a game like that, there isn’t much margin for error.”
No, there’s not, but both teams made mistakes. It just seemed like NC State’s — whether it was a dropped pass, a turnover or a penalty — was always the Big Mistake. The Wolfpack didn’t get called for holding until late in the game, but it was when they were moving the ball on a potential game-tying drive.
NC State’s offense certainly doesn’t have the margin for error for those kinds of mistakes, and scoring one touchdown in three trips to the red zone isn’t going to cut it. UNC was 3-for-4 in the red zone with three touchdowns and one missed field goal, and ultimately that was the difference.
UNC didn’t turn it over much — just once, on a bad pass by Renner for an interception — but the Tar Heels committed eight penalties for 80 yards, many of which were drive-killers. The odd thing is that UNC has had plenty of those in the past, too — they just became too much and UNC couldn’t overcome it. The Tar Heels did this week. “Way too many penalties, way too many mental mistakes,” Fedora said. “But what they did was they overcame them, they just kept playing and they didn’t let it bother them.”
Perhaps Ebron personified that better than anyone.
After his fumble early in the game — which resulted in an NC State field goal — he was able to just move on, which is something Ebron does about as well as anyone. If he has a big drop, a big holding penalty or makes a big mistake, he can move past it perhaps better than anyone on the team.
“Adversity happened to us, 10-0. We responded just like they say — laugh at it, put it in our pocket, run with it, and that’s exactly what we did,” Ebron said. “If something bad happens like (my) fumble, laugh it off, okay. ‘You know what, Coach? That was my fault. It will never happen again.’ And it won’t.”
Watching the game, it didn’t seem like UNC was 5-for-15 on third down. It seemed like every big third down the Tar Heels needed to convert, they did. And that’s the biggest difference between this team now and this team a few weeks ago, back when senior tailback A.J. Blue was talking about division in the locker room.
“When we start from the bottom, the only way you can go is up. We’ve been really working on just trying to become more of a family than a football team, period. You want guys that you can trust and you want guys that you know you can depend on,” Blue said. “The family aspect is really coming together.”