Five questions to ponder before kickoff


Saturday’s showdown between unbeatens NC State and Clemson at Death Valley won’t determine the ACC championship. That won’t happen until Dec. 1 in Charlotte.

But it will go a long way toward determining which team will represent the Atlantic Division in that title game.

The hype for this matchup has been brewing for nearly two weeks now, since both teams had open dates last Saturday. Based on the way the Wolfpack and Tigers have played one another over the past two seasons and the rhetoric going on between the fan bases, there’s every reason to believe that this battle will be just as intense and entertaining.

As important as the 87th renewal of the old Textile Bowl is, it’s not the only game of significance in North Carolina this week.

With East Carolina giving prized freshman Holton Ahlers his first start against defending “national champion” Central Florida, UNC looking to build off its near-miss against Virginia Tech,  Duke trying to gain bowl eligibility while keeping pace in the Coastal Division and Campbell making its Big South debut, there’s plenty to keep us busy on this first fall-like Saturday of the season.

As we bask in the glorious weather and wait for the action to begin, here are five questions to think about and consider:

1. Why are Clemson fans getting so worked up about Dave Doeren’s comments?

Maybe the Tigers are just bored with beating up on their ACC rivals week after week or perhaps their fans are still salty over the NC State coach’s comments following last year’s game, in which he accused Clemson of illegally using a laptop computer on the sideline.

Whatever the reason, the folks down in Death Valley are up in arms about a comment Doeren made concerning the Wolfpack’s strategy against Tiger quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Specifically, he said that the freshman “hasn’t been rattled yet and he needs to get rattled. Make him second-guess what he’s looking at. (He) needs to be on his back more than he wants to be.”

At last check, Saturday’s game hasn’t been changed into a ballet recital. It’s still a football game and, NFL rules changes notwithstanding, the object of the game is still the same — or in the words of the late Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, “the quarterback must go down and he must go down hard.”

It’s not as if Doeren threatened Lawrence with injury or vowed to take him out of the game by any means necessary. He simply said that the Wolfpack’s best chance at victory, along with stopping the run and protecting its own quarterback Ryan Finley, is to try to put Lawrence under duress and force him into making mistakes in the most important game thus far in his young career.

That’s hardly anything to get upset about. Unless, of course, Tigers fans are concerned that the strategy might work.

2. How will UNC bounce back after last week’s self-induced near miss against Virginia Tech?

The Tar Heels came agonizingly close to pulling off an upset victory that could potentially have turned around their disjointed season last Saturday. But despite being the best team on the field for the first 54 minutes of the game, outgaining Virginia Tech 522-375, they fell victim to their own mistakes and one final Hokies drive to lose 22-19.

It was a heartbreaking result, especially considering the effort coach Larry Fedora’s team expended. The question now is whether UNC will have anything left in the tank either physically or emotionally when it heads to the Carrier Dome for its first meeting with Syracuse as an ACC rival.

One thing going in UNC’s favor is the fact that its defense is finally intact after suffering through a string of suspensions and injuries through the first half of the season. With ends Malik Carney and Tomon Fox, tackle Aaron Crawford and safety Myles Dorn all in the lineup for the first time, the Tar Heels played by far their best game of 2018 against Tech. They’ll face a greater challenge this week, however, in the Orange’s Eric Dungy, who has averaged 292.3 yards of total offense per game over his career, fourth-best against active ACC players.

Speaking of quarterbacks, it’s anybody’s guess how Fedora will decide to play his cards against Syracuse. Promising freshman Cade Fortin joined sophomore Chazz Surratt on the injured list last Saturday, presumably sending UNC back to Square 1 and the often ineffective Nathan Elliott. Fedora, however, suggested that untested freshman Jace Ruder, walk-on Manny Miles and even wide receiver (and former quarterback) Anthony Ratliff-Williams could also be in the mix.

No matter what, the Tar Heels are likely to rely heavily on a running game that has been its strength — aside from key fumbles by backs Michael Carter and Antonio Williams.

3.  Does Virginia still have Duke’s number?

There are certain teams that just play well against certain opponents regardless of their records, the venue or the circumstances. The Blue Devils proved that last week when they went to Georgia Tech and beat the Yellow Jackets for the fourth time in the last five years. This week against Virginia, the tables are turned on coach David Cutcliffe’s team.

Even though the Cavaliers have been the most beatable team in the Coastal Division over the past three years, Duke hasn’t been able to beat them. And only one of those games, last year’s 28-21 loss in Charlottesville, was close.

Cutcliffe attributed UVa’s dominance of his team to a combination of turnovers, poor tacking and big plays, and he said his seniors are motivated to not leave Durham without having beaten the Cavaliers. Pulling off a victory might be even more difficult than ever with UVa coming off an upset of Miami last week.

The key to the Blue Devils breaking their losing streak against UVa and gaining bowl eligibility with their sixth win is getting ahead early, stopping the running game and forcing the Cavaliers’ dual-threat quarterback Bryce Perkins into becoming a one-dimensional pocket passer. It’s a formula that worked well for NC State in its win against UVa earlier this month and one a Duke defense allowing only 17.7 points per game is fully capable of executing.

4. How much of an impact will freshman Holton Ahlers have on ECU’s chances against UCF?

The moment for which Pirate fans have been waiting more than a year to happen has finally arrived. Highly touted freshman quarterback Holton Ahlers will finally get his first career start Saturday. The fact that he’s being thrown into the fire against a Central Florida team whose 19-game winning streak is the nation’s longest only adds to the intrigue of Saturday’s homecoming game.

Ahlers, whose father is the longtime public address announcer at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, has already enjoyed some success in a limited role. Used mostly as a runner in ECU’s wildcat package, he leads the team in rushing with 248 yards and five touchdowns on just 38 carries. But until last Saturday, that’s the only element of his skill set he’d been allowed to show.

That changed during the fourth quarter of ECU’s 42-20 loss to Houston. With the game hopelessly out of reach and another loss looming, coach Scottie Montgomery finally opened up the playbook and turned Ahlers loose. He responded by completing 11 of 18 passes for 137 yards while getting the Pirates into the end zone twice to earn his shot at the starting job.

It’s doubtful that his insertion into the lineup will make much of a difference in the result Saturday — not as long as McKenzie Milton is quarterbacking the Knights. But it should make the game a lot more interesting to watch and perhaps give the Pirates and their fans some renewed hope for the second half of the season and the winnable games still on the upcoming schedule.

5. How will Jalin Moore’s season-ending injury affect Appalachian State’s high-powered offense?

The Mountaineers rank fourth nationally scoring 48.4 points per game and 11th in total offense at 496.8 yards per game. But they lost a major part of their arsenal 10 days ago when their leading rusher, Moore, suffered a fractured and dislocated right ankle while scoring on a 27-yard touchdown run in a win at Arkansas State.

While Moore will be missed — he ranks sixth all-time in school history with 3,570 yards and 33 touchdowns — the dropoff in his absence doesn’t figure to be dramatic. His replacement Darrynton Evans, who returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the season opener at Penn State, rushed for 115 yards in relief of Moore at Arkansas State. And QB Zac Thomas is averaging 6.0 yards per carry and has run for six scores.

App State’s chances are also helped by the fact that this week’s opponent, Louisiana-Lafayette, hasn’t had a lot of success stopping the run this season. The Ragin’ Cajuns are yielding 217.2 yards per game on the ground this season and are allowing an average of 37.3 points per game. That bodes well for the Mountaineers regardless of who’s carrying the ball.

That’s all for this week. Enjoy the games!