Two coaches at forefront of UNC-State rivalry game

While a win over the Wolfpack could save Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora’s job, Dave Doeren is trying to keep the possibility of a 10-win season alive

NC State has won two straight games against rival North Carolina, including a 33-21 win at Carter-Finley Stadium last year. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

It’s a commonly held assumption that Dave Doeren was on his way out the door as NC State’s football coach until his Wolfpack upset North Carolina in the 2016 regular season finale.

Even Doeren acknowledges that the 28-21 victory almost certainly saved him from getting fired.

“I wouldn’t be standing here today probably if we didn’t win that game,” he said Monday. “Our momentum changed after that win for our program, for sure.”

State went into the game teetering on the brink of a losing record while facing serious doubts about the direction of its program. Since that pivotal afternoon at Kenan Stadium, the Wolfpack has won 17 times in 24 games, including a 10-5 mark in the ACC.

Three years later, it’s the rival Tar Heels and Doeren’s coaching counterpart Larry Fedora that are on the hot seat hoping to spark a similar turnaround.

Speculation about Fedora’s future is running rampant as UNC (2-8, 1-6 ACC) limps toward its second straight sub-.500 season, one marred by the suspension of 13 key players in a controversy involving the sale of school-issued athletic shoes.

Though it’s uncertain exactly how tenuous Fedora’s job security is heading into Saturday’s rivalry game in Chapel Hill, a win against the bowl-bound Wolfpack (7-3, 4-3) clearly wouldn’t hurt his cause. That is, assuming the decision to make a change hasn’t already been made.

It’s a subject Fedora predictably deflected when asked at his regular weekly press conference Monday if he’s spoken to athletic director Bubba Cunningham about his status beyond this season.

“Every week Bubba and I sit down and talk about the game and what went on in the game and everything,” he said. “It’s no different from every week throughout the entire season.”

Pressed on the subject of if his potential firing has come up, the seventh-year coach replied, “No, we haven’t talked about anything other than the games at hand.”

As for the game, Fedora’s Tar Heels are a 6½-point underdog in their 2018 finale, which might seem low considering the disparity in the teams’ records and the fact that UNC has just two wins against Power 5 opponents over the past two seasons. Both of which, strangely enough, are against newly crowned ACC Coastal champion Pittsburgh.

But as Doeren is quick to point out, six of the Tar Heels’ eight losses this season have come by 10 points or less with two of them — heartbreakers against Virginia Tech and Syracuse — coming in either the final minute of regulation or overtime.

“These games are never about stats and records, two close-by rivals,” Doeren said. “I look forward to playing in this game, and I know they do the same.

“When you watch them on film, they have really good skill players. Their running backs are very impressive. They run hard, break tackles and are physical blockers. Their wide receivers, (Anthony) Ratliff-Williams and (Dazz) Newsome, are big playmakers for them. They have a lot of guys who have played in a lot of close games.”

UNC is coming off its first win since Sept. 22, a 49-26 victory against Western Carolina. State, meanwhile, is also riding high after a 52-10 pounding of Louisville — a game in which its high-powered offense got its mojo back after stumbling in a loss to Wake Forest two Thursdays ago.

According to Doeren, whose team still has another game remaining against East Carolina on Dec. 1, there is no way State will take the struggling Tar Heels lightly.

“It’s a really important game for our fan base,” he said, “and every rivalry game I’ve ever been in.”

As important as it is to the Wolfpack, it has the potential to be even more critical to the Tar Heels.

That’s especially true for their coach, who claimed to be too focused on the here-and-now Monday to start reflecting on the accomplishments of a tenure that could very well be down to its final game.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m not looking back at the last seven years,” Fedora said. “I’m really concerned with getting this team ready to play a really good football team. I don’t have time to reminisce right now about what’s going on and what’s happened in the past. It’s more about what do we need to do to win this football game this Saturday.”