RALEIGH — NC State wasn’t expected to be good and North Carolina looked to be a potential CFB Playoff dark horse with a Heisman Trophy candidate.
But in the final game of the regular season, the two teams couldn’t have ended up further from those expectations as the Wolfpack emphatically beat its bitter rivals for the third straight season, trouncing the Tar Heels 39-20 to move to 9-3 on the season and push UNC down to 8-4.
“These rivalry games are huge,” said NC State coach Dave Doeren. “It’s what college football is really about. … This game with us Carolina is an important game. It’s the oldest rivalry in the ACC and it goes back a long way. I have great respect for Mack Brown and his program, and to be able to say that we’ve beaten them now three years in a row is very meaningful to NC State and to the Wolfpack Nation.”
For NC State it was the team’s fifth straight win. For UNC, a fourth loss in their final six games after winning its first six.
After Week 7, the two teams were on polar opposite sides of the spectrum.
The Tar Heels had defeated Miami for their sixth straight win and fans were bypassing ACC Championship chatter and talking about CFB Playoff potential.
Meanwhile, the Wolfpack had suffered an embarrassing 24-3 loss to Duke to fall to 4-3 on the season, leaving many wondering if they had won their last game.
But something shifted after that week.
After a challenge from its head coach and leadership as well as a bye week to reset, NC State rallied from the loss, stringing together wins over Clemson, Miami, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, all while at-the-time starter MJ Morris curiously elected to redshirt following the Clemson win.
“It was a pivotal moment in the season,” Doeren said. “We were right at a point where we needed to really commit. We weren’t [committed] at that time. Guys were doubting things and deservedly so, but as a coach, I had to really, really think hard about what we needed to do and put a plan in place.
“As a leader, I was challenged. I was put in a tough spot, but if you’ve learned anything about me in my time here, I like being challenged. I like fighting when people are doubting me.”
And while the Wolfpack began to rise, the Heels started to plummet.
First was a 31-28 loss to 1-5 Virginia, then a 46-42 defeat against 3-4 Georgia Tech. Wins over Campbell and Duke slowed the Tar Heels’ fall, but another loss at the hands of Clemson saw them finally fall out of the Top 25.
One team bought in, while the other checked out, and it was apparent that those mindsets carried over to Carter-Finley on Saturday night.
The Wolfpack started off right.
Four UNC three-and-outs and a forced fumble by the defense in their first five drives was only topped by an offense that scored all six times it got the ball in the first half.
The Wolfpack led 26-7 after 30 minutes and had outgained the Tar Heels 232 yards to 58.
“I did a very poor job preparing our team,” said UNC’s Brown. “I thought it was very much like the Virginia game. We were awful in the first half. It was as bad as I’ve ever seen us. … It’s on me completely. You can’t play as bad as we did in the first half without the head coach doing a poor job.”
The UNC defense gave up big plays on nearly every drive and looked lost, almost disinterested, throughout the game.
NC State moved the ball at will, led by true freshman receiver KC Concepcion. He had 186 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, though the Wolfpack did a good job of spreading the wealth.
“Our mindset going in was just to hit them in the mouth quick and early,” said NC State quarterback Brennan Armstrong. “We did that, and I knew with my experience playing them that if we kept hitting them in the mouth, we were going to get points on the board.”
By the time the Tar Heels started to rally — UNC quarterback Drake Maye picked up 263 of his 360 total yards of offense in the second half — it was too late.
The win sends the Wolfpack into bowl season with the potential to pick up their elusive 10th win.
“The brotherhood of this team is special,” Doeren said. “It’s unique, and I would love to win 10 with them because they deserve to have that legacy item.”
For the Tar Heels, the loss opens up questions about whether or not Brown has reached his plateau in his second stint in Chapel Hill.