RALEIGH — NC State and Virginia have been part of the ACC since the conference was first formed in 1953. But when they meet at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, they’ll seem more like strangers than traditional rivals.
That’s because, thanks to ACC expansion and the advent of divisional play, the Wolfpack and Cavaliers haven’t played one another since 2012.
It’s been so long since their most recent game that none of the players on either team nor their coaches have ever faced one another, making preparations for their football reunion more like that for a nonconference matchup against an unfamiliar foe rather than the Wolfpack’s ACC opener.
“It has a feel of that,” said State coach Dave Doeren, who has faced all 13 other football-playing conference opponents besides the Cavaliers during his six seasons in Raleigh.
Despite that lack of recent history, Saturday’s game will mark the 58th all-time meeting between the teams. They played every year between 1960-2003 in a series that began in 1904, but only four times since the divisional split in 2004.
Although Doeren has never coached directly against the Cavaliers’ Bronco Mendenhall, he’s seen his teams play enough from afar to at least have an idea of what to expect. He can also get help from offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, who faced Mendenhall’s BYU teams in each of his two years at Boise State.
“I’ve seen Virginia a lot in crossover film now for six years, but have not game-planned against them,” Doeren said. “It’s unique, but it is a conference game and you can feel that for sure with our guys. You just do the best you can with your prep and get the guys rolling.”
After having a high-profile nonconference game against West Virginia washed out because of Hurricane Florence two weeks ago, the Wolfpack got rolling again last Saturday with a workmanlike 37-20 win at Marshall.
Doeren praised his players for overcoming the distractions and the disruption in their schedule to put together a solid winning effort in their first road game of the season.
In addition to getting another standout performance from quarterback Ryan Finley, who threw for 377 yards and a touchdown, the Wolfpack (3-0) made improvements to their running game, got a defensive score from ACC Defensive Back of the Week Jarius Morehead and a badly needed positive contribution from its kicking game in the form of three field goals by freshman Christopher Dunn.
“To play a football game on the road against a good team like that and do the things that we really preached, winning the turnover margin, really playing well on first down and on both sides of the football (was encouraging),” Doeren said. “To play a whole game in the rain like that and be able to play catch like we did I think says a lot about the focus of those guys.”
Their focus will be tested even more this week against a conference opponent that has shown noticeable improvement since dropping a 20-16 decision at Indiana in Week 2.
The Cavaliers (3-1, 1-0 ACC) are coming off by far their best effort of the young season last week in a 27-3 dismantling of Louisville. They feature an offense led by dynamic dual-threat JUCO-transfer quarterback Bryce Perkins that will present a major challenge to a rebuilt Wolfpack defense that has played better than expected to this point.
“I’m excited that the kids are just playing the way they are together, and I think the energy that they have is fun to see,” Doeren said. “I think our back end is playing at a higher level than it did last year. I think our line is not as flashy, but it’s doing a really nice job in gap integrity and they’re playing hard. … But going into league play, now it’s like each week it’s different.”
With traditional Atlantic Division heavyweights Florida State and Louisville struggling, and formerly ranked Boston College going down to defeat at Purdue last Saturday, getting off to a fast start in the ACC is even more important than usual for State.
Fortunately for Doeren and his team, Virginia is as unfamiliar with them as they are with it.
“Last time I even paid attention to NC State, I was coaching at New Mexico,” said Mendenhall, who left there for BYU in 2002. “That was a long time ago.
“Really, when an opponent isn’t on your schedule in a given year, you just forget about them. You have to be so engrossed in the opponent you are playing. It’s been a busy morning familiarizing myself with schemes, personnel, history and why they’re doing what they’re doing, how they got to that point.”