Take a look at our 10 Keys to victory for North Carolina as they renewal its Tobacco Road rivalry Saturday afternoon against N.C. State in Raleigh. The Tar Heels are going after its second straight victory and are looking to improve to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, while NCSU is looking for its first conference win this fall.
In addition, UNC is looking for its first triumph in Raleigh's Carter-Finley Stadium since 2005.
DON'T TAKE THE BAIT
One of the big goals of the N.C. State fanbase in this game will be to heap insults upon the UNC players along the sidelines in an effort to throw them off their games and get them angry and concentrated on the heckling. And therefore in theory, unfocused.
It's a strategy that can and has worked in the past, and the Tar Heels have to know what they're going to be up against when they step on the field Saturday. Nothing in Atlanta, Blacksburg, or even Columbia compares to what the Tar Heel players will face in terms of hostility when they play today in Carter-Finley.
This game means everything of course to both teams, but especially to State's fans, who see a dwindling window of opportunity to make something of this 2013 season, today is much more than a game. Which means they're going to be loud and heaping taunts and insults all day towards the UNC sidelines.
What Carolina must do is drown out all the noise and stay on task.
"They (the NCSU fans are) definitely a lot more amped up when Carolina comes into their stadium. And there's a little more trash-talk from their fans to us on the bench, but we don't let that affect our play," said senior defensive end Kareem Martin. "We can't let them get into our heads, because we've got 60 minutes to play against another team. We've got to keep the tunnel vision and focus on the goal for us.
"Preparation-wise, there is no difference. The difference is when you get out on the field on Saturday. That's when all the emotion and all that excitement comes through, and then it boils down to how do you handle it? Do you go out there and you lose your mind? Or do you focus and you do your job and you're able to make decisions under duress? And that's when your mental toughness shows up," said head coach Larry Fedora. "That's when your mental toughness shows up. That, to me, is just the fun part of college football is having those regional rivalries and everything that goes with it."
This isn't to necessarily say that Marquise Williams should get the Lion's share of the plays over Bryn Renner against the Wolfpack, but it is safe to say that UNC could really use more of Williams' production, similar to recent outings, to throw off the NCSU defense and keep the chains moving.
"We obviously have some sub-packages that we've utilized him (Williams) for, but when he takes a series, when he goes, we run the system as-is," said UNC offensive coordinator Blake Anderson this week. "I think there's some things that I think he (Williams) is a little more comfortable with that may be a little different than Bryn, but for the most part he's on the field running what we've plan to do. The package is basically the same offense as if we were running any quarterback."
In the eyes of Anderson, Williams is no longer a newcomer.
He's in position now to legitimately lead the UNC offense as a veteran, and he'll surely get plenty of opportunities to make plays today.
"Those days (of being inexperienced, nervous and certain) are over (for Williams)," said Anderson. "You've got to play ball. Obviously his feet get him out of some trouble at times, but he's making fairly good decisions with the ball in the throwing game. He did a good job spreading the ball around (against Miami and Boston College) when he had opportunities to throw it. He stood in the pocket and took a couple of shots, and waited for some plays to develop. So yeah, we're wide open with him when he's out there."
"I think the Virginia Tech situation helped him realize just how close he was to being on the field. And he's done a really good job the past few weeks of mentally preparing and having better practice preparation. And to be ready. You don't want to let these guys down. So it's definitely been a process, but he's doing a lot better job now."
BE READY FOR TWO (OR MORE) QBS
UNC has had some success in recent games with its quarterback tandem, and with N.C. State also tinkering throughout the season under center, there's always the possibility that both teams could be rotating signal-callers today.
State got back season opening starter Brandon Mitchell after an early injury, and he's likely to get the start today. Mitchell is more the Marquise Williams of NCSU's QB rotation---the running threat---while Pete Thomas is more of the thrower.
Bottom line, UNC has to be prepared for either to enter the game, and to defend them.
"It makes it much more difficult when you're trying to prepare for two different quarterbacks," said Fedora. "When you're preparing for multiple things offensively. It just makes it much more difficult. Your defense has to prepare for quite a bit, and it waters things down for them. Hopefully our guys will do a great job in preparation this week, and we'll be ready to go on Saturday."
"Looks like they feel more comfortable running one (Mitchell) more than the other, but they like to throw the ball with the other kid (Thomas)," Fedora continued. "There's a lot of different things. You see different things formation-wise. You see things motion-wise. A lot of it is just the unknown of what all they can do with these kids, because they've been rotating pretty thoroughly throughout the year."
Junior tight end Eric Ebron comes into Saturday's game leading the Tar Heels in receptions (35), yardage (599), yardage per game (85.6), and he also has UNC's longest passing completion of the season with his 71-yard catch and run against Miami.
Needless to say, he's done most everything he can this fall to give UNC chances to score, and while his three touchdowns are below the average that head coach Larry Fedora established when he said before the season he'd get 12, Ebron will certainly have a chance to get in the end zone on Saturday against NCSU.
Of course, he'll have to do so as perhaps the exclusive primary target of the Wolfpack defense.
They've watched film of course, and they've seen how UNC has moved Ebron around and done all kinds of things to get him open against different teams. Don't be surprised if the Wolfpack spends much of the game keying on Ebron, which of course could be beneficial in other ways for the Tar Heels if they could run the ball a little bit better.
But there's little doubt that if UNC is to beat State today, Ebron has to once again be involved heavily in what the offense is doing.
"Eric's become more of a complete tight end. Just more of a complete player. You know he's going to handle himself at the point of attack. His football IQ has gone up tremendously. He understands what we're trying to do with the (offensive) package, and he feels very comfortable doing it," said Coach Fedora. "Now he's just able to turn loose and make plays, and I think that's what you're seeing him do. He's making plays and having fun."
Perhaps we might even see him in the offensive backfield, as we did a couple times against Boston College.
No matter how they do it, UNC needs to get the ball in the hands of its top playmaker, any way, any how.
"No (I don't have a future at fullback). It's cool, but I'm no fullback," Ebron joked with us after the Boston College. "It was actually my (idea). I was begging for carries. And I was like third down and goal line, I was like, 'I want to do something with me.'"
An exuberant Ebron may have sent some bulletin board material in the direction of Raleigh last weekend after saying that UNC 'didn't care' about N.C. State, among other things, but he's playing the best football of his career right now and naturally he's more than confident in what he's doing, as well as UNC's chances of beating NCSU today.
"They (the coaches) just believed in me (when I ran the ball). Third and five, I got six. So they trust in me, and I just made it happen. Kickoff return. Punt return. I'm trying to do it all. Everything."
"He's an unbelievable athlete," said Marquise Williams of Ebron. "You've got to put the ball in the best athletes' hands. He is the best athlete on our team, and we've got to find ways to get him the ball. He can't go a game without touching the ball. The guy is unbelievable. And I speak of him as my best friend. I've been knowing him for a while. He's unbelievable. And we're going to keep feeding him the ball."
"If we can get the type of game (from Ebron) he had last week against Boston College and Miami, I think we'll be pretty good on offense," added Martin.
UNDERSTAND WHAT'S AT STAKE
For North Carolina's football program, this isn't just another game as they try to get over the hump of a tough early start and make a push towards a bowl game.
This is family member versus family member. Close friend versus close friend. Parent versus child or sibling versus sibling.
Around North Carolina, the UNC-NCSU rivalry is one that stretches into every town, every community, and it's arguably a much bigger deal to the respective fanbases, whose loser faces a winter of unmerciful heckling from today's winner.
The Tar Heels are obviously playing for themselves, but just for today, they need to step outside themselves a little more and realize they're playing for a lot of other people as well.
"We're still doing everything we do for any other team, but I know around the state it's magnified. The top two schools in the state playing each other. Everywhere around outside of football, everybody's putting it on a pedestal," said Martin, who last week was named ACC Defensive Lineman of the Week after getting two sacks against BC. "I've got a feeling that the players are going to be a lot more focused (Saturday)," he added. "You don't really need to motivate guys anymore after what happened last year. They (NCSU) had the five in a row. It doesn't take much to motivate guys to want to beat this team. It just gets the players amped up a little bit more. We know they think this is their state, but we're going to go out there and play our hardest and try to beat them on Saturday."
(CONTINUE TO) KEEP IT SIMPLE DEFENSIVELY
Now that UNC is not doing as much stuff on the defensive side and they're focusing on a few specific schemes and personnel groupings, they seem to be playing better defensively. Of course, not running as many fronts and schemes can make things easier for the offense, but with all the trouble North Carolina was having defensively, they had to do something to improve things dramatically.
Mission accomplished against Boston College. And now they look to continue things on the right track against NCSU.
Which makes it easy to argue, continue keeping it simple on the defensive side.
Focus on basic defensive fronts and blitz packages without getting too fancy. Allow players to use their athletic ability and don't make them think too much.
"We're probably a little bit more simpler (defensively) than we've been, and we just let them play," said Fedora. "And our guys have come through. They've made tackles. On the one long run (against Boston College) we had a missed assignment on the inside---we had a tackle go the wrong way---and it created a gap that we weren't prepared to defend, so they took advantage of that and they hurt us. But other than that, I thought our guys played very well throughout the game."
Defensively, UNC needs to concentrate again on tackling of course, but also on basic fundamentals along the line of scrimmage, engaging the NCSU offensive lineman to tie them up and allow the 'Bandit,' 'Ram,' and linebackers to be freed up to make plays.
Though the Wolfpack as a team only have 14 sacks, which ranks just one ahead of UNC's ACC dead-last total of 13 sacks, they're capable of stuffing the run and putting UNC in a lot of undesirable third-and-long situations if the Tar Heels aren't successful on the ground.
"They're big across the board, and they're big even on the back end. And obviously the effort will be phenomenal on Saturday," said Coach Anderson. "They're big and they're physical up front, I think their front is where their strength is at. There's going to be some matchup issues we're going to have to deal with. We've got to utilize some tempo and some change-of-pace to help us there."
The Tar Heels have had a young group of offensive linemen gelling and working through various issues since training camp, and things are on the upswing. They've got a great chance today against the Wolfpack to continue building and the fact is that they can't have a day of communication letdowns and mistakes, or State could really plug up the UNC offense.
But the real key is to be physical.
You know State's defensive linemen will be. UNC needs to come off the ball hard and lay a lick from the opening play of the game. Today is going to be won on emotion as much as technique and execution, and UNC's offensive line needs to establish the line of scrimmage from the outset by being the more physical group.
"We're having some issues up front," admitted Coach Anderson. "And obviously we knew that would be the case. We've played some pretty good fronts as well. We've held onto the ball too long as well, to be honest with you. There's some things we could have alleviated."
"The number (of sacks) is up a little bit. We're breaking in a lot of new people up front. We're breaking in some new guys in the backfield too, so there's been some issues there. It has not been all five guys up front. It has not been just the running back missing, and it has not been just the quarterback. You combine all the issues, and that's where your numbers came from. We need to reduce it. We know that. But I think a lot of it goes hand-in-hand with the run game. We've had some of the same issues with the run game, and it's plagued us a little in the pass game as well."
EVEN MORE PRESSURE
N.C. State's offensive line has been a mess at times this fall, and through the season so far they've given up 21 sacks, which ranks near the bottom of the ACC. North Carolina has a league-worst 13 sacks defensively, so clearly they're struggling to get to the quarterback, but at the same time, they've been getting better, as they showed last week.
Coming off multiple good games, Martin has a chance to have another solid outing Saturday. Former five-star recruit Rob Crisp is out for the season and he'll have chances to make plays taking on NCSU offensive tackles Joe Thuney and Tyson Chandler.
State could throw a few different QBs at the Tar Heels, but the bottom line is pressure.
As they did last week against Boston College, UNC needs to make the right keys up front and penetrate NCSU's front wall as much as possible. Get after their quarterback regularly and force the Wolfpack to win the game strictly on the ground.
ANOTHER OPTION IN PASSING GAME
While Ebron figures to get a lot of attention not only from N.C. State's defense as well as the UNC quarterbacks, the Tar Heels really need another guy to step up and have a big game through the air to have its best chance of winning today.
Johnathan Howard and Quinshad Davis could either one be that guy of course, and both of them might be in position to succeed against an NCSU secondary that is giving up 224 passing yards per game and has allowed 12 touchdowns.
Guys like T.J. Thorpe and Ryan Switzer could also make a big difference on Saturday, and even if they don't get as many balls thrown at them as Ebron, Davis, and Howard, they need to take advantage of those balls that come their way and do something with them.
If UNC is spreading the wealth to a bunch of different receivers and spread the Wolfpack defense out, it could lead to a wealth of opportunities, whether it's opening up the running game or creating more things with the pass. Either way, the Tar Heels need more than one guy to be making plays if they expect to keep the Wolfpack defense off-kilter and out of position.
STOP THE RUN
This will be a 10 Keys feature just about every week. But it's especially the case against an NCSU offense that is averaging 78 more rushing yards per game than UNC (180.1 compared to an ACC-worst 102.1 for the Tar Heels).
Just as State has a chance to really throw off the UNC offense if they're physical up front and shut down the Tar Heel rushers, Carolina can stunt NCSU's offense to a halt if they're jamming the rushing lanes and slowing down Shadrach Thornton, Tony Creecy, or anybody else that gets a carrie today for State.
"They've been pretty official running the football. I think they're averaging 180, 185 yards a game rushing, which is good," said Fedora of the NCSU rushing attack.
"They're going to spread you out, get into a lot of different formations, shifting, all the different things they can do to try and throw some eye candy at you and get your eyes where they shouldn't be and get you out of a gap, mis-aligned. All those things."
"But they still want to be able to run the football. Offensive-line wise they're going to come off the ball. They're going to try to create some gaps for you, and the running backs do a really nice job running, and so do the (NCSU) quarterbacks."