By Aaron Beard, AP Sports Writer
Both North Carolina coach Mack Brown and North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren want to see how their team responds to setbacks entering Saturday’s renewal of the instate rivalry.
And it comes in a higher-profile setting than usual, too, considering both programs are ranked in the AP Top 25 entering the game for the first time in 27 years.
For the 14th-ranked Tar Heels, the question is how they respond to their first loss in nearly a year after a poor first-half performance that set up a loss at Florida State. And the 23rd-ranked Wolfpack will play for the first time since losing starting quarterback Devin Leary to a serious leg injury that could sideline him for the rest of the regular season.
UNC (3-1, 3-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) had won six straight games and climbed to No. 5 in the poll, the program’s highest ranking since 1997. But the Tar Heels had a mistake-filled first half at FSU to fall behind 31-7, then had a frantic comeback before losing 31-28.
“As we told the players, we weren’t ready to be the No. 5 team in the country week after week, because we didn’t play well enough to do that,” Brown said. “They’re aware of that, and they know that.”
N.C. State (4-1, 4-1) has won three straight to pop into this week’s poll. A key factor in that rise had been Leary’s development in his second season as a starter, but the Wolfpack lost him to a broken left leg last weekend against Duke.
Bailey Hockman started the first two games after Leary missed numerous preseason-camp workouts due to contact tracing. He led the Wolfpack to an opening-night win against Wake Forest and is atop the depth chart for Saturday.
“I thought he played really good against Wake Forest, so we just need him to get back to that,” Doeren said. “I know he’ll prepare the right way. It’s his time. So it’s a matter of him taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Some other things to know about Saturday’s N.C. State-UNC game:
STOPPING THE RUN
N.C. State has allowed an average of 101 yards rushing in its three-game winning streak. But the Tar Heels boast the league’s No. 3 rusher in Michael Carter (119.5) and No. 5 rusher in Javonte Williams (100.5), a duo who led UNC to 399 yards rushing in the Virginia Tech win.
On the other side, N.C. State’s Zonovan “Bam” Knight has had three games with at least 94 yards rushing.
N.C. State needs linebacker Payton Wilson to be at his best to help slow the high-scoring Tar Heels. He leads the ACC at 11 tackles per game and is coming off a huge performance against the Blue Devils with 19 tackles – the most by a Wolfpack player since 2012 – with two interceptions.
Brown said the Tar Heels missed 19 tackles against Florida State and have missed 54 on the year. Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman said improving those numbers can include players maintaining the correct “leverage” in attempting a tackle to keep ballcarriers contained and allow the rest of the defense to be positioned to recover quickly from any misses.
“When we’ve done that, we’ve played really good defense here,” Bateman said. “That’s the No. 1 thing we can improve on to get back to it.”
N.C. State has won all three meetings with UNC in Chapel Hill under Doeren, now in his eighth year. That included one in 2016 that Doeren said “probably saved my job” and one in 2018 that ended with a fight between the teams after the Wolfpack’s winning touchdown in overtime.
“When you go in a locker room after an emotional win on either side, you’re going to feel that and you can’t just play it off,” Doeren said. “I mean, it means a lot to you.”
The programs are located about 30 minutes apart in a series that began in 1894. This is only the third time – and first since 1993 – that both teams have been ranked entering the game. N.C. State has won nine of the last 13 meetings, though UNC won last year 41-10 in Raleigh.
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