North Carolina football: 5 reasons the Tar Heels have the edge against NC State
On Black Friday, the 112th edition of North Carolina-NC State will kick off, as Dave Doeren’s Wolfpack will travel to Chapel Hill to face Mack Brown’s Tar Heels (3:30 p.m., ABC). Both teams are coming off a loss, as then-No. 13 North Carolina (9-2 overall, 6-1 ACC) fell 21-17 at home to Georgia Tech, and NC State (7-4, 3-4) lost 25-10 on the road to Louisville — its 2nd straight loss after a Nov. 12 home defeat to Boston College.
North Carolina enters as a 6.5-point favorite, and here are 5 reasons why the Tar Heels have the advantage against the Wolfpack.
1. Drake Maye won’t have 2 bad games in a row
Some stats can prove a point: 352 yards, 4 touchdowns; 363 yards, 3 touchdowns; and 448 yards, 3 touchdowns. Those are just 3 stellar performances the North Carolina quarterback has put together this season, as he has taken the mantle from former starter Sam Howell and then some.
But Saturday against Georgia Tech, Maye had his worst night of the season, completing 16 of 30 passes for 202 yards (season lows for completions and yardage), failing to throw a touchdown pass for the 1st time this season and tossing just his 4th pick in the 11 games. Despite that, the Tar Heels led 17-0 late in the 2nd quarter and would have taken a late lead if not for a backbreaking end-zone drop by Josh Downs on 4th-and-11 with just more than 4 minutes remaining.
Against the Wolfpack, Maye likely will get back on track. Downs still is as reliable a receiver you will find in the country, and the redshirt freshman signal-caller simply has been a production machine all season long. One off night does not change that.
2. The Tar Heels defense is improving
It’s relative, but defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s unit has shown signs of life over the past month. In their past 4 games, the Tar Heels have allowed just more than 4.2 yards per carry, barely lower than their season average of 4.5 yards allowed per carry. That has partially contributed to North Carolina allowing 26.8 points per game during that stretch, compared to 32.4 points per game allowed during its first 7 contests.
This past June, Mack Brown told ESPN “I think we can play really good on defense because we’re talented. We’re young still. We made too many mistakes last year.” That process has taken a while, as North Carolina still ranks outside the top 100 nationally in yards per play allowed. But against Duke, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Wake Forest, the Tar Heels made key stops that led to wins.
3. NC State is dealing with injuries
During Saturday’s 25-10 road loss to Louisville, the Wolfpack was without multiple key players. Quarterback MJ Morris, center Grant Gibson, tight end Trent Pennix, running back Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, wide receiver Devin Carter, linebacker Payton Wilson and defensive back Tyler Baker-Williams missed the contest, absences that hindered NC State on both sides of the ball.
It is unclear which, if any, of those 7 will suit up Friday, but going into the week, 1 thing is clear. The Wolfpack is banged up, in a big way.
4. Elijah Green has emerged as a dynamic runner
On North Carolina’s 1st offensive snap Saturday against the Yellow Jackets, Elijah Green followed pulling tight end Kamari Morales and right guard William Barnes, cut upfield with authority and took it to the end zone. Eighty yards later, Green was celebrating after putting his electrifying combo of vision and burst on display.
Over the past three outings, Green is averaging 83 yards on the ground on just less than 17 carries per game. The emergence of the run game, led by Green, adds a variable to the equation for opposing defenses, and it particularly helps the Tar Heels in facing the 2nd-best run defense in the ACC (NC State gives up 101.4 yards per contest, behind only Pittsburgh).
5. North Carolina’s offense excels situationally
Rivalry games that often come down to the wire tend to be won on 3rd and 4th downs, in the red zone and in the turnover battle. Well, the Tar Heels are 2nd in the ACC in 3rd-down conversions (49.3%) and 4th-down conversions (66.7%, on 27 attempts). Even when your defense holds for a couple plays, getting Maye, Elijah Green, Josh Downs and Antoine Green off the field is a tall task, even for elite defenses.
In the turnover column, the Tar Heels have lost 6 fumbles to go along with 4 interceptions thrown by Maye. Its 10 turnovers are tied for the 12th-least nationally, ahead of the likes of Tennessee and Oregon. Maximizing possessions has been the name of the game for this offense, a fact bolstered by its 3rd-best red-zone offense in the ACC.
Given how adept North Carolina’s offense is at moving the chains, scoring in the red zone and taking care of the ball, expect a bounce-back performance from the unit Friday.