North Carolina football: 3 keys and a prediction for Friday's battle with NC State
NC State will take the 45-minute bus ride to Chapel Hill this Black Friday, as the Wolfpack and No. 18 Tar Heels face off for the 112th time (3:30 p.m., ABC). Despite the Wolfpack being riddled with injuries and coming off 2 straight losses, this is Rivalry Week, and all bets are off.
Here are 3 keys to the contest for the Tar Heels, and a prediction for how it will shake out.
Contain Thayer Thomas
This is in part because of the absence of big-play target Devin Carter for 3 games so far, but Thomas is far and away the Wolfpack’s leading receiver. At 51 catches for 586 yards and 4 touchdowns, the senior ranks first in all 3 categories for NC State, ahead of Keyon Lesane (25 catches, 285 yards) and Darryl Jones (3 touchdowns).
A year ago, Thomas reeled in 4 catches for 48 yards against the Tar Heels, including a 26-yard score that brought the Wolfpack within a field goal late in the 3rd quarter. On that particular play, the Wake Forest native showed exactly what makes him such a dangerous weapon out of the slot, hauling in a pass from Devin Leary just short of the 1st-down marker, turning upfield, outrunning defensive back Cam’Ron Kelly and maneuvering past multiple defenders on his way to the end zone.
Whoever starts at quarterback for NC State (MJ Morris was listed as QB1 on Monday’s depth chart but missed Saturday’s loss to Louisville because of an injury, thrusting graduate student Jack Chambers and redshirt freshman Ben Finley into action) can count on Thomas being available as a safety valve on 3rd downs and in the red zone. For North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and his unit, cracking down on the receiver is paramount.
Take care of the details offensively
Anytime you go 2-of-5 in the red-zone scoring chances and 4-of-14 on 3rd-down conversions, trouble will ensue. Even against Georgia Tech, a team rotating backup quarterbacks Zach Gibson and Taisun Phommachanh, those situational struggles usually will result in a loss, and that is exactly what happened.
“I thought the difference in the game was that they were 3-for-3 in touchdowns in the red zone, and we were 1-for-5, and we’ve been great in red-zone touchdowns. We weren’t as good last week (against Wake Forest) and we were horrible on Saturday night, and that was the difference in the game both ways,” Tar Heels coach Mack Brown said during his Monday media availability.
Brown is right. The Tar Heels converted 5 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns, and another into the winning field goal by Noah Burnette, during their 36-34 road win against Wake Forest. However, early in the 4th quarter, with North Carolina trailing 34-33, the offense had 3 tries from the Demon Deacons 1 and got no points out of it, as Drake Maye and running back Elijah Green were stuffed on 2nd and 3rd down, respectively, while Maye’s 4th-down pass to Josh Downs was deflected at the line of scrimmage. That rough sequence of events gives the Tar Heels’ red-zone performance in Winston-Salem, N.C., the “decent” label.
Bouncing back from the uneven red-zone performance over the past 2 weeks, and converting key 3rd downs, will be paramount Friday.
Get Bryson Nesbit and Kamari Morales more involved
North Carolina’s tight end duo has been solid but unspectacular throughout ACC play. Bryson Nesbit has had at least 63 yards receiving against Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech. Kamari Morales, on the other hand, has been quieter. His best game of the season, at least statistically, came against Georgia State, as the Florida native hauled in 3 catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
That touchdown was a thing of beauty. On the 1st drive of the afternoon, Maye hit Morales in stride on 3rd-and-11 from the Tar Heels 45, and the tight end did the rest. The former 3-star prospect shed multiple would-be tacklers on his way to a 55-yard score, showing good things can happen when you utilize a dynamic tight end properly.
Obviously, NC State will key on Josh Downs, likely putting Aydan White (2nd in the ACC in interceptions with 4) on the star North Carolina receiver. Plus, Antoine Green, who ranks 2nd on the team in receptions (30), receiving yards (678) and receiving touchdowns (6), missed Saturday’s loss to Georgia Tech with an upper-body injury sustained during the opening half against Wake Forest.
That opens the door for Nesbit and Morales to step up. During his Monday media availability, Brown referenced the pair as being 2 of only 3 Tar Heels on the offensive side of the ball who played well. Their numbers should reflect that a little more.
Prediction: North Carolina 31, NC State 23
This will be a close one. The Wolfpack, which sits at 21st nationally in total defense, tied for 15th in scoring defense and 9th in rushing defense, will come ready to roll despite its offensive struggles and injury concerns.
But Maye, Downs and the rest of the offense eventually will get back on track, and during the 4th quarter, the Tar Heels will hit on multiple chunk plays to clinch win No. 10.