Friedlander: Role reversal adds to intrigue of NC State-UNC rivalry matchup
No fan base in the ACC, or perhaps the country, knows more about disappointment than the one at NC State. So while the 2022 football season hasn’t turned out the way they’d hoped, it’s not as if it’s a new experience.
But that hasn’t stopped the dream from turning into a nightmare, thanks in large part to a plot twist even the most hardened member of Wolfpack Nation would have a hard time believing.
It’s bad enough that injuries and other unforeseen circumstances have derailed their team’s quest to end a 43-year ACC championship drought and reach double-digit victories for only the 2nd time in school history.
The level of frustration has been raised even higher by the fact that their perceived destiny has been hijacked by their most hated rival, North Carolina. This was supposed to be State’s year.
Dave Doeren’s team came into the season with virtually everyone back on defense and a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Devin Leary poised to lead the Wolfpack to their first ACC title since 1979.
The Tar Heels, on the other hand, were still trying to figure out what went wrong during a disappointing 2021 campaign and how they were going to replace star quarterback Sam Howell amid whispers that the game had passed 70-something coach Mack Brown by.
Thirteen weeks later, the roles have been reversed.
While State limps to the finish line with a so-so 7-4 record, it’s UNC – fueled by a Heisman hopeful of its own in Drake Maye – that’s headed to Charlotte as a division winner for next week’s league championship game.
It’s the worst-case scenario of worst-case scenarios from a Wolfpack perspective.
UNC isn’t just a rival to State. The Tar Heels are more like a hated enemy sent down from Chapel Hill hell-bent on threatening everything State holds dear. Wolfpack fans spend the entire year thinking, talking and dreaming about putting the blue-bloods in their place.
It’s the one remaining goal still on the table for State.
Beating the Tar Heels in the final regular-season game won’t derail whatever fringe Playoff hopes UNC might have had. Georgia Tech took care of that last week. And it won’t take away any of the “what-ifs” that will linger for years to come.
But the bragging rights would certainly help make an otherwise long offseason a lot more bearable.
That isn’t the only reason why there promises to be more juice than usual involved when the rivals get together for their Black Friday showdown at Kenan Stadium.
Maye saw to that back in September with a failed attempt at humor in response to a question about his decision to flip his commitment from Alabama to UNC.
“Growing up in Carolina, you’re going to be a Carolina fan,” the Charlotte area native said. “Some people may say State, but really people who go to State just can’t get into Carolina.”
Maye quickly issued an apology for the statement. But like a deleted social media post, it will never go away.
“It’s a young player putting his foot in his mouth. Those things happen,” Doeren replied at the time. “It’s nothing that I’m going to pay a lot of attention to until we get ready to play them.”
That time has arrived.
There’s a good chance the Wolfpack’s locker room will be wallpapered with copies of the quote this week. There’s an even better chance that another Drake – State linebacker Drake Thomas – might want to meet up with his namesake for a discussion about the subject in the Tar Heels’ backfield.
If there’s going to be a debate, though, UNCs players have a few grievances they’d probably like to address as well. Starting with the final minute-and-a-half of last year’s game.
The Tar Heels had State all but beat with a 9-point lead when Leary connected with Emeka Emezie for a pair of touchdown passes, sandwiched around a successful onside kick, for a stunning 34-30 victory that put a rotten cherry on top of UNC’s stale cake of a season.
Even with their success this season, that’s a taste the Tar Heels still haven’t completely cleansed from their palate.
The taste will be much sweeter if they’re able to take advantage of their opportunity on Friday by gaining revenge on the Wolfpack, winning their 10th game and taking another major step toward claiming their rival’s destiny as their own.