NC State is a touchdown underdog Friday, and for good reason.

No. 18 North Carolina, despite being unranked to start the season, has been the clear-cut 2nd-best team in the ACC. Coming off a 9-3 campaign, and bringing back quarterback Devin Leary and a host of experienced talent on both sides of the ball, however, 2022 was meant to be a landmark year for the Wolfpack under coach Dave Doeren. (as NC State even opened at No. 13 in the Associated Press poll this season.

Leary was sidelined with a torn labrum last month, his replacements (Jack Chambers, MJ Morris and Ben Finley) have been inconsistent, and offensive coordinator Tim Beck’s unit simply has not gotten off the ground. A season after ranking 6th in the conference in points per game (33.1) and 5th in passing yards per game (288.4), the Wolfpack is 9th (24.9) and 9th (222.0) in those 2 categories, respectively. 

That has tightened NC State’s margin for error, putting an excess burden on its top-notch defense — which ranks 2nd in the ACC in points per game allowed (18.7) and 4th in yards per game allowed (323.4). Ultimately it all adds up to a 7-4 mark, featuring a respectable, but frustrating road loss to then-No. 5 Clemson, anemic offensive displays en route to road losses to then-No. 18 Syracuse and Louisville, and a 2nd-half collapse at home against Boston College.

For the Wolfpack, all indications point to another hard-fought battle against the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill this week. But there is a path to victory for NC State: dominating the time of possession.

The Wolfpack ranks 3rd in the ACC, behind only Pittsburgh and Duke (who both possess prolific rushing offenses) in time of possession at 32 minutes, 31 seconds. That puts NC State ahead of Clemson, Florida State and Louisville, whose rushing offenses all rank among the top 50 nationally. North Carolina, on the other hand, is 11th in the conference in time of possession, at 28:48.

Chunk plays have been a major component of the Tar Heels’ offense with so much skill-position talent at offensive coordinator Phil Luongo’s disposal. 

It’s simple, then. If NC State wants to give itself the best chance to win Friday, it needs to double down on taking the air out of the ball. Anytime North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye is sitting on the sidelines is a win for the opposition, and that strategy bore fruit for Georgia Tech last week as the Yellow Jackets handily won the time of possession battle, 34:27 to 25:33.

And Duke, which fell 38-35 to the Tar Heels, won the time of possession battle 35:28 to 24:32, and would have knocked off North Carolina if not for a litany of late mistakes. 

The blueprint for getting Tar Heels in a close game, then seeing how the chips fall, is there. NC State could pull off that strategy, but there’s a contingency.

The health of Morris.

Morris missed last week’s loss to Louisville with a lower-body injury but was listed at the top of the Wolfpack depth chart Monday, with Finley listed as the backup. Doeren, however, elected not to shed any light on the health of Morris and other injured NC State players (including receiver Devin Carter and linebacker Payton Wilson) during his Monday media availability.

It is certainly possible that Morris suits up Friday, but considering the short week, uncertainty remains. It could be Morris, it could be Finley or it could be Chambers if Doeren and Beck want a change of pace during the contest.

The problem is, Morris is the only NC State quarterback capable of executing a balanced offensive gameplan, moving the chains and keeping Maye and his dynamic offense off the field. His 6 combined touchdowns against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest are proof, despite struggles against Boston College. 

So, we will have to wait and see if Morris indeed takes the field Friday at Kenan Stadium. NC State’s method of attack, that gives it a shot to knock off North Carolina for the 2nd year in a row, likely depends on it.