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Hot Read: UNC Cruises in Rivalry Test

By Dave Holcomb
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North Carolina beats rival NC State 48-21.

North Carolina and NC State met while both ranked Saturday for the first time since 1993, but only one team appeared to be deserving of a place in the Top 25.

As they have looked for much of this season, the Tar Heels were sluggish early. But North Carolina finally started clicking offensively, scoring multiple times in each of the final three quarters. Behind a 21-point third quarter, the Tar Heels rolled to a 48-21 victory against the Wolfpack.

Here are five thoughts from the North Carolina win:

The Importance of the Tar Heels Rushing Attack

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell came into the season with a ton of hype, and through the first five games, he’s failed to fully deliver. There’s plenty of reasons to explain why he and the Tar Heels offense has started slowly -- lack of offseason, COVID cancellations, etc. -- but maybe it’s time to argue Howell just isn’t quite at the level most placed him at two months ago.

That’s what makes the North Carolina running game so important. When the Tar Heels offense has played its best this season, it’s been largely behind the ground attack. On Saturday, both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter rushed for more than 100 yards and combined for four touchdowns. The Tar Heels gained 326 rushing yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry versus the Wolfpack.

North Carolina is still counting on Howell improving, but the key to its success is the team’s 1-2 punch in the backfield.

North Carolina Efficiency

NC State came into the afternoon as one of the best ACC teams in red zone offense, red zone defense and third-down defense. However, North Carolina outplayed NC State in all of those areas.

The Tar Heels became the first team to convert more than half of their third downs against the Wolfpack this season, going 7-for-12. North Carolina also scored five touchdowns on seven red zone possessions (71.43%).

Meanwhile, NC State only moved the ball into the red zone twice and reached the end zone once. The Tar Heels outgained the Wolfpack by 186 yards, but the North Carolina efficiency made the score even more lopsided than the yardage differential suggested.

NC State Quarterback Situation

The biggest discussion point for NC State following this contest will be who plays behind center the rest of the season. In the team’s first game since Devin Leary suffered a broken leg, junior Bailey Hockman and freshman Ben Finley split snaps at quarterback. Each threw a touchdown and at least one interception.

Hockman started but Finley entered before the end of the first quarter. The freshman looked good early but finished with two interceptions and a lost fumble. Hockman reentered in the second half to throw a 30-yard touchdown.

Was the decision to return to Hockman an admission that moving to Finley was a mistake? With the loss, is NC State ready to give up on winning the ACC and changing its goal of preparing for next season? Fortunately, the Wolfpack have a bye over Halloween weekend, but coach Dave Doeren will still have to answer these questions before the team’s next contest.

Wolfpack Searching for More from Playmakers

Quarterback is an issue, but NC State needs more from the rest of its offense. Tight end Dylan Parham had an easy short touchdown from Finley in the first quarter, which would have tied the game at 7, but instead, Parham bobbled the pass twice right into the arms of Tar Heels defensive back Don Chapman.

The Tar Heels defense played extremely well. Still, NC State posted 34 rushing yards and no Wolfpack receiver had more than four catches. Regardless of who plays quarterback, the NC State playmakers need to help the signal caller a lot more.

North Carolina Stays Alive in ACC Race

There are only two undefeated teams remaining in the ACC, but without divisions, it doesn’t seem likely that a two-loss team will be in the conference championship game this December. So with North Carolina and NC State each entering Saturday with a loss, this matchup was an ACC elimination game of sorts.

The Tar Heels must still prove they can handle success and expectations. Even coach Mack Brown admits his team hasn’t done that yet. But with the win Saturday, North Carolina remains a contender in the ACC.

And without Clemson on the schedule this fall, the Tar Heels are still a trendy dark horse for spoiling the predicted Clemson-Notre Dame ACC Championship matchup.