The Tar Heels are set to put the finishing touches on the 2023 regular season on Saturday night when they head down the road to Raleigh to take on the surging NC State Wolfpack. A win in this one would put the brakes on another late-season collapse and give the team a shot at their ninth double-digit win season. A loss would send the team into an offseason of major uncertainty on many different fronts.
The Tar Heels are coming off their most frustrating game of the season against Clemson and are looking to bounce back on the offensive side of the ball after a game filled with turnovers and inability to move the football consistently. Running back Omarion Hampton is in the midst of a phenomenal season that has him firmly in the running for the Doak Walker Award and he will be looking to bounce back after two costly fumbles last week. He’ll have his work cut out for him against this NC State defense, as will Drake Maye who is coming off of his worst performance of the season. The sophomore quarterback has had another tremendous season and continues to make a strong case to be the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL Draft with the amazing improvisational plays he has made. He hasn’t gotten the type of consistent help that we thought this pass catching group would provide outside of Tez Walker and Bryson Nesbit since Kobe Paysour’s injury, but those two weapons have been extremely reliable for him, especially down the stretch of the season. The Tar Heel offensive line has been solid the majority of the season but was overwhelmed by the Clemson defensive front. They need to rebound and at least hold their own against a physical NC State front so that this offense can move the football and find the endzone.
The Tar Heel defense continues to struggle down the stretch of the season after a promising start to the year. The majority of those issues can be attributed to fatigue, as the team has six players who have played more than 600 snaps in the first eleven games of the season. Kaimon Rucker has been a warrior up front all year long for Carolina and has gotten consistent pressure on the quarterback all season long, but he is starting to wear down. The rest of the defensive line has had a solid year but has not been able to win enough in the run game, putting pressure on the linebackers to be perfect. Cedric Gray and Power Echols were ready for it early in the season, but considering both have played more than 775 snaps so far this year, it makes sense that they have had some sloppy performances in the home stretch of the season. The secondary has had its issues at times, too. Marcus Allen and Alijah Huzzie have both played over 725 snaps already this year and have been picked on more and more as the season has gone along. Huzzie missed the majority of last week's game after going down in the first half against Clemson and if he can’t go, that would be a huge loss for this game. That would put a lot of pressure on D.J. Jones, who stepped in last week and held his own. At safety, Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman have been very solid and Stick Lane’s emergence has been huge for them.
The Tar Heels special team’s unit has been a disaster the entire season and the hope is that it won’t rear its head in this one. Placekicker Noah Burnette, who has done a great job since taking over for Ryan Coe in Week 3, and punt returner Alijah Huzzie have been very good, but that’s it. Punter Tom Maginness has been inconsistent since taking over for Ben Kiernan and how could he not with a unit in front of him that has already allowed three punts to be blocked. The kick coverage unit has allowed the fourth-most yards per return in the entire country this season, while their return game has returned the fourth-fewest kicks this season for just 125 yards. If Huzzie can’t go in this game, even the punt return game becomes a bit of a question mark.
The Wolfpack come into this game as one of the most confident teams in the country as they enter on a four-game winning streak. The team hasn’t missed a beat after starting quarterback MJ Morris opted to sit out the remainder of the season to retain his redshirt thanks to graduate Brennan Armstrong, who has stepped back in after being benched. His most dangerous element is his legs, as he leads the team in rushing yards by a significant margin. The team has also found something in the backfield with the combination of slot receiver Kevin Concepcion and running back Kendrick Raphael in the last few weeks. They will lean heavily on the run game, but the team will have to find a way to stop Concepcion, who has led the nation in most receiving categories for true freshmen. Outside of him, though, the team doesn’t have a single pass catcher who has reached 200 yards receiving so far this year. The offensive line isn’t as strong as the ones of the past for the team, but will still be a challenge for this worn down defensive line because of their physicality.
The Wolfpack defense is right up there with Clemson as the toughest defense that the Tar Heels have faced this season. It all starts up front where Davin Vann, who dominated the Tar Heels a year ago, and Red Hibbler have had great seasons off the edge. In the second level, linebacker Payton Wilson looks to be on his way to ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and Jaylon Scott has been a good running mate alongside him. The secondary has allowed some yards but is still playing well led by cornerback Aydan White. The group is a very opportunistic one that ranks inside the top five in interceptions this season.
The special teams unit has some really strong areas and some really weak ones. Both returners are having really strong seasons, as is punter Caden Noonkester. On the flip side, placekicker Brayden Narveson has missed four field goals already this season and the team is allowing the third-most kick return yards in the country.
Off. PPG: 38.1 (12th)
Off. PYPG: 311.6 (8th)
Off. RYPG: 203.2 (13th)
Off. TYPG: 514.8 (3rd)
Off. 3rd Down %: 49.7% (9th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 60.0 (T-59th)
Sacks Allowed: 28.0 (T-98th)
Def. PPG: 26.0 (66th)
Def. PYPG: 234.0 (82nd)
Def. RYPG: 162.5 (91st)
Def. TYPG: 396.5 (92nd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 38.1% (T-61st)
Tackles for A Loss: 64.0 (T-59th)
Sacks: 26.0 (T-49th)
Interceptions: 12 (T-16th)
Turnover Margin: +10 (T-7th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.9 (T-108th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 63.9 (119th)
Off. PPG: 25.5 (T-78th)
Off. PYPG: 183.9 (109th)
Off. RYPG: 148.1 (80th)
Off. TYPG: 332.0 (103rd)
Off. 3rd Down %: 38.5% (T-72nd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 77.0 (T-110th)
Sacks Allowed: 22.0 (T-67th)
Def. PPG: 20.2 (T-30th)
Def. PYPG: 215.5 (T-49th)
Def. RYPG: 102.5 (17th)
Def. TYPG: 318.0 (22nd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 26.6% (T-1st)
Tackles for Loss: 66.0 (T-49th)
Sacks: 31.0 (T-20th)
Interceptions: 15 (T-5th)
Turnover Margin: +7 (T-21st)
Penalties Per Game: 5.8 (T-62nd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 47.4 (T-50th)
Keys to the Game
Get Off to a Fast Start
This will be the most hostile environment the team has faced all season long and they need to do everything they can to take the crowd out of the game. They had a great chance to do that last weekend in Death Valley, but two turnovers inside the five-yard line prevented that from happening. The Tar Heels need to get on the board early in this one and avoid falling into a situation where they have to play from behind against this stingy NC State defense.
Ever since the game against Miami, the Tar Heels have gone from being a relatively disciplined team, to one of the least disciplined in the entire country. Last week continued the trend with ten penalties, including six on the offensive line alone. There is no doubt this will be a chippy game, but the Tar Heels have to dig deep and piece together one of their least penalized games of the season.
Win the Battle of the Run Games
In 26 of the last 31 games between these two sides, the team who has won the rushing battle has won the game. The Wolfpack defense has been stout this season, but this might be the toughest running game that they have faced the entire season. The bigger concern will be this Tar Heel run defense against the Wolfpack running game. This won’t be the toughest running game this defense has faced this season, but the mobility of Armstrong and fatigue that this side of the ball has endured won’t make it easy. They need to leave it all on the table in this one and help the Tar Heels win this extremely important category.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Jacolbe Cowan (lower body), Elijah Green (redshirt), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Lejond Cavazos (undisclosed), Ryan Coe (lower body), Alijah Huzzie (undisclosed)
OUT- Michael Allen (transfer portal), Rakeim Ashford (knee), Jakeen Harris (pectoral), Dawson Jaramillo (knee), MJ Morris (redshirt)
PROB- Brennan Armstrong (undisclosed)
Location: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, NC
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)