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ACC Spotlight: UNC vs NC State

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews North Carolina and North Carolina State.

In North Carolina, the Tar Heels-Wolfpack meeting is always a must-watch contest, but prior to this season, NC State’s visit to Durham on Oct. 24 wasn’t circled as a game to have much influence on the national landscape. Now, even after North Carolina’s upset loss to Florida State last week, the Tar Heels-Wolfpack showdown should garner national interest and holds major importance in the ACC.

For the first time since 1993, No. 14 North Carolina and No. 23 NC State are both ranked coming into their matchup. The Wolfpack have already equaled their win total from last season with four victories in their first five games. With only one loss each, both teams are also very much alive in the ACC championship race.

Despite a disappointing defeat to Florida State last week, the Tar Heels have won six of their last seven and hope to repeat last year’s performance against the Wolfpack when they won 41-10 on Nov. 30. Meanwhile, NC State hopes to continue its opportunistic ways and beat its in-state rival for the fourth time since 2016.

During their recent three-game winning streak, the Wolfpack haven’t set any yardage records or completely stopped the opposition. However, they are making the most of their opportunities and not letting their opponent do the same.

In 2020, NC State is second in the ACC only to Clemson in converting offensive red zone possessions into touchdowns. On 27 drives, the Wolfpack have scored touchdowns 22 times in the red zone.

Over their recent three-game winning streak, NC State has converted two-thirds of its red zone possession into touchdowns. That’s actually lowered the team’s season average but compared to NC State’s opponents, the Wolfpack are far outpacing the opposition in red zone efficiency.

NC State has allowed opponents to score a touchdown on 60 percent of their red zone possessions overall this season, but in the last three games, the Wolfpack have held offenses out of the end zone on more than half of their red zone opportunities. Last week, Duke scored just one touchdown with five red zone possessions.

Let’s break it down another way -- NC State outscored its last three opponents in the red zone 62-54 and that’s despite two fewer possessions. Without that point differential, the Wolfpack doesn’t beat Pitt by one, and it’s 11-point victory against Duke is a lot closer. In those two games, the Panthers and Blue Devils scored touchdowns on just three of 10 red zone possessions.

Remaining efficient will be key for NC State to hand North Carolina its second straight loss, but this will be a terrific challenge for the Wolfpack. NC State lost quarterback Devin Leary, who had really begun to play well, to a broken fibula last week. Veteran signal caller Bailey Hockman will replace him, but he hasn’t experienced the same success as Leary in a small sample. This year, Hockman has thrown two touchdowns but three interceptions while averaging 6.9 yards per pass in 46 attempts.

Although it would obviously help, Hockman doesn’t have to throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns to beat North Carolina. But he must lead an offense that takes advantage of its opportunities, especially in the red zone.

The other challenge for NC State is North Carolina’s red zone play. The Tar Heels are just behind the Wolfpack with the third-most efficient red zone offense, scoring touchdowns on 73.33 percent of its chances. North Carolina’s defense has also been great inside the 20-yard line, allowing touchdowns on only 43.75 percent of its opponents’ red zone drives.

North Carolina had about 150 yards and seven points in the first half against Florida State last Saturday, but the Tar Heels exploded in the second half. Sam Howell finished with 374 passing yards and three touchdowns. Beau Corrales led the team with 141 receiving yards, but three different players caught touchdowns, and four Tar Heels pass catchers recorded more than 50 yards.

Coach Mack Brown is hopeful that while it came in a loss, last week’s second half will be a turning point for the Tar Heels offense. They’ve been sluggish and inconsistent to begin the year, but they have the talent to thoroughly outmatch the Wolfpack.

Whether NC State stays with North Carolina depends largely on its team efficiency, especially on offense with Hockman behind center.

Prediction: North Carolina 27, NC State 21