RALEIGH — A season that stood on the verge of being special is now teetering on the brink of becoming a disappointment for the NC State football team. A season that was once headed for disaster now has a chance to finish on a positive note for rival North Carolina.
That contrast has only added to the intensity surrounding the annual battle between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack.
UNC at NC State
Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh | Saturday, 3:30 p.m. | ESPNU
Not that either side needs any extra motivation when they meet Saturday afternoon in their regular season finale at Carter-Finley Stadium.
“Honestly, I don’t sit there and drum up the series, I don’t really have to do that,” Doeren said Monday at his regular weekly press conference. “What I told the team yesterday is that it’s Senior Day. I had those seniors stand up and I said, ‘Do you need a better reason to play your best football?’ Everyone in the room knew where I was coming from.
“The fact that it’s UNC adds to that, but our preparation is going to be that no matter who we play, we want to win.”
The same can be said for the Tar Heels, who after losing eight of their first nine games have finally begun to pick up confidence — along with wins — after back-to-back victories against Pittsburgh and Western Carolina.
Although UNC is still more than a two-touchdown underdog to the Wolfpack at 3-8 overall (1-6 ACC), its chances of winning and adding to its rival’s unexpected late-season woes have improved exponentially since State was riding high at 6-1 and ranked No. 14 in the nation just four weeks ago.
The Wolfpack has lost three of its last four, including Saturday’s 30-24 heartbreaker to Wake Forest in Winston-Salem.
“I think what our team has done under the circumstances is that they have played extremely hard,” coach Larry Fedora said. “We are starting to make fewer mistakes. We are playing better as a football team right now. I do like the way we are playing at this point going into this last game.”
Fedora’s Tar Heels have been bolstered by a number of factors, including the emergence of quarterback Nathan Elliott, the improvement of its defense and the unexpected return of injured playmaker Austin Proehl.
Another thing they have going for them is the recent history of this series. In the five years since Fedora arrived at UNC in 2012 and Doeren took over at State a year later, the underdog has won the annual showdown between the two more often than not.
“Anything can happen in a rivalry game,” Fedora said. “That’s one of the great things about rivalry games, you can throw records out the door. Guys are going to battle and it’s always going to be a heck of a game.”
It was last year when the Wolfpack held on to win 28-21 in Chapel Hill to earn bowl eligibility and put a damper on the Tar Heels’ once promising season. The roles are reversed this year, with UNC looking to play the role of spoiler while State tries add an eighth victory and strengthen its sagging bowl resume.
“I don’t really think it matters what their record is in this game,” Doeren said. “I know it didn’t for us when we played them last year. We didn’t care how many wins they had.”