What's the biggest difference between this year's UNC squad and the past five editions that NC State has defeated? Wolfpack head coach Tom O'Brien said that the answer is easy: Carolina's offensive line.
"Certainly this is the best offensive line we're going to play against this year," O'Brien said, noting that UNC senior guard Jonathan Cooper is a potential first-round draft pick.
The Heels have one of the league's best rushing attack led by redshirt sophomore Giovani Bernard, whose rushed for 795 yards on just 103 carries and leads the league in rushing by over 100 yards despite missing two games.
The fact though that redshirt junior quarterback Bryn Renner has been sacked just five times this year may be a more accurate reflection to how dominant the Heels' offensive line has become.
"I think they've been beat up, banged up when we played them," O'Brien said. "They've had different parts in there when we've played them in the past. These guys have played every game thus far this year.
"That's the key to having a good offensive line other than having good players that they have, is to be cohesive and playing with the same guys week-in and week-out. They're the least sacked team in the conference today."
Quarterback pressure has been a mainstay for NCSU against UNC the past five years. They sacked T.J. Yates seven times in 2010, and last year knocked Renner out of the game. O'Brien said that Saturday though should be different.
"We're going to have trouble sacking him," he said. "They get rid of the ball quick."
State will try to find a way though to come up with another winning formula against the Heels. A win Saturday would give the Pack a new school record for the longest winning streak in the rivalry.
The Pack's recent dominance over the Heels has never been lost in Raleigh. Radio personality and former NCSU player Mark Thomas is quick to bring it up on the Wolfpack Club Caravan stops, for instance.
"There are certain games that are special because of all the influence on the outside looking in no matter where you go, what you do, whether it's in the social media or on campus, that's all that is going to be talked about," O'Brien said. "That's the way a game against North Carolina is for North Carolina State.
"It's certainly brought up, but that's the way rivalries are, you can't escape that fact no matter what side of the ledger you're on."
- O'Brien's most memorable win over UNC came in 2009 when a depleted Wolfpack squad had to reorganize its offense in just one week to prepare for UNC after coordinator Dana Bible was diagnosed with leukemia.
After falling behind early, NC State rallied for a 28-27 win, getting a crucial fourth quarter blocked field goal to help maintain its razor-thin margin.
After the game, former NCSU quarterback Russell Wilson threw the ball into the stands in a momentary mental lapse. After realizing what he had done, Wilson quickly found who had the football and was able to retrieve it so that the game ball could be given to Bible, who was in a hospital.
"I think that was probably a little more special than any of the others," O'Brien said.
- Fifth-year senior quarterback Mike Glennon has led back-to-back game-winning drives, first versus No. 3 Florida State and then last Saturday at Maryland.
"I think that's a big confidence builder, especially for the quarterback," O'Brien said. "You have to be able to have success in those situations, and I think then the whole team has confidence in the quarterback."
Glennon's counterpart Saturday is practically a neighbor. Both Renner and Glennon grew up in northern Virginia, but their similarities end there according to O'Brien.
"I think he couldn't play in their offense," O'Brien said about Glennon. "Renner could play in our offense because he's had in previous years. I don't think Mike is that type to run the option and do all that. We could ask him to do it, but that's certainly not his strength, and we wouldn't do that, maybe."
- Florida State is No. 1 in the conference in rushing defense, and Maryland is No. 2. North Carolina is No. 3, and O'Brien joked that at least State is going in the right direction in playing teams with good rushing defenses.
But UNC is coming off a game where Duke ran for 234 yards. The week before Miami rushed for 180 yards. Is there a potential opening for State to attack?
"They got good coaches over there," O'Brien said. "They are going to look at that and say, 'Why did that happen and let's correct them.' That's one thing that you do. If you have a problem with something you make sure that's corrected cause you figure the other team is going to try to take advantage of it. I would think they would be working hard on that.