Double duty: NC State looks to stay alive in Atlantic race, dispatch rival Tar Heels

The Wolfpack could still make the ACC title game with a win over UNC and loss by Wake Forest

Wide receiver Thayer Thomas and NC State face rival UNC on Friday and still have a chance to win the Atlantic Division and play in the ACC Championship Game. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

Drake Thomas ran back an interception for a pick-six and Thayer Thomas caught a scoring pass from Devin Leary in NC State’s 41-17 rout of Syracuse on Saturday. By doing so, they became the first set of Wolfpack brothers since Dave and Don Buckey in 1975 to score touchdowns in the same season.

But that’s not why Thayer is counting his blessings this Thanksgiving.

“I’m thankful that we still have a chance to play for an ACC championship,” the redshirt junior receiver said. “It’s been a special season, and it’s not anywhere close to over. We’ve got a lot left in the tank. We’re going to have a good run at the end of this thing.”

State kept its Atlantic Division hopes alive on Saturday with one of its most complete efforts of the season, scoring touchdowns through the air and on the ground, on defense and special teams while improving to 8-3 (5-2 ACC).

The problem is coach Dave Doeren’s 24th-ranked team is still going to need help to earn a trip to the ACC Championship game and a shot at its first league title since 1979.

Wake Forest can clinch the division with a win at Boston College on Saturday. A loss, however, would leave the door open for the Wolfpack.

That is, assuming State can take care of its own business 24 hours earlier.

Thursday might be the date on which people gather for the traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings. For many football fans around the state, the main course won’t be served until Friday night when the Wolfpack takes on North Carolina at Carter-Finley Stadium in a rivalry game with even more at stake than usual.

Because of the intensity surrounding the matchup with the Tar Heels, Doeren is confident that his team will be locked in on the task at hand rather than being distracted by a goal it may or may not have an opportunity to achieve.

“We put ourselves in a position where we don’t control the finish, but we do control what happens if we can get a win here at home on Senior Day against our rival,” he said. “That’s what we’ll focus on. Obviously, we’ll be Boston College fans this week, pulling for them too.”

It’s no surprise that one of the teams in Friday’s regular season finale still holds championship aspirations. The fact that it’s the Wolfpack represents a reversal of expectations since it was UNC that began the year as the presumptive title contender.

The Tar Heels’ hopes all but ended before they could even get started with an opening week loss at Virginia Tech.

Coach Mack Brown’s team enters the game at 6-5 overall and 3-4 in the ACC. Having gained bowl eligibility with a win against Wofford last week, the most tangible goals left in an otherwise disappointing season are a mythical state title — UNC has already beaten Duke and Wake Forest — and the opportunity to deliver a heartbreaking blow to the Wolfpack’s Atlantic Division chances.

“It’s a huge rivalry game for our university and our fans, I understand that,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “Both these universities and fan bases are passionate about this game, and they want to win. It’s bragging rights for a year, and that’s very important.”

That’s not the only reason it’s important to Brown and the Tar Heels.

“We need to get better as a program,” he said, adding that to elevate from good to great, his team needs to prove it can beat good teams away from home. “So this is a huge program game for us to win on the road and get better.”

It will help that starting quarterback Sam Howell is back at practice and expected to play after missing last week’s game with an upper body injury.

“He’s our face. He’s our leader,” Brown said of UNC’s all-time leader in passing yardage and touchdown passes. “Sam’s tough. He’s a competitor and he would want to play in this game because he knows how important it is to his team, his university and the state. He’ll be excited about Friday night.”

State’s players will be just as fired up both about the rivalry, a fact that may help in taking some of the emphasis off the bigger picture goals that are still on the table.

“You can’t look too far into the future,” said running back Zonovan Knight, who has run kickoffs back for touchdowns in each of the past two games. “You have to focus on that night, that game plan and just kind of keep pushing throughout. When the next week comes, you move onto them and let the past be the past and let the present be the present. Just live in the moment and go from there.”