NC State-UNC: For All The Barbeque

NC State head coach Tom O’Brien and UNC head coach Larry Fedora have played nice this week.

NC State (5-2, 2-1) at North Carolina (5-3, 2-2), 12:30 PM, ACC Network

North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner might be fiery on the field, but he is still the son of a football coach. And his answers – even during the week leading up to North Carolina’s biggest rivalry game of the year against NC State – reflected that. Turner Walston, a Tar Heel Monthly magazine editor and GoHeels.com writer, has covered Renner for a long time. So he decided to press Renner (playfully) for a bit more candor.

TW: Bryn, be honest.

BR: Gotcha. I always am.

TW: You can’t go to a bowl game.

BR: That’s correct. I’m aware of that.

TW: The ACC has said even if you’re top in Coastal, you can’t win it.

BR: Gotcha.

TW: The state championship is out the window.

BR: That’s correct.

If you’re going to salvage something from this season, the fans want you to beat NC State.

BR: Absolutely. (Sees teammates walking by. Waves at them, stalling for time, leans over in his chair to say something to them.) Hey guys! (Laughs nervously.) Yeah, you know. It’s sad to say, but I just don’t buy into all that stuff. I know it’s cliched and you guys are going to think I’m lying, but -

(Andrew Carter of the News and Observer): We think you’re a coach’s son.

BR: I am, but it just comes – it’s how I was raised. You’ve got to prepare for every game like it’s going to be NC State or it’s going to be whoever you guys want it to be. Whoever you guys want us to play, I’m so focused on what we have to do as an offense, that’s my main focus. How can we get the ball in the end zone for us to win games? I sound like a broken record. We could play the frickin’ Bears or the best defense in the league, the 49ers. We could go be playing them and I want to focus on how can we as an offense put the ball in the end zone.

And NC State head coach Tom O’Brien – who has been a responder during game-week and an instigator afterwards during this five-game winning streak – wasn’t biting, either. He and Raleigh News and Observer beat writer Joe Giglio always provide entertaining banter, but other reporters pressed him about the rivalry, too. And he did nothing but either praise the Tar Heels and their coaching staff or carefully dodge potential minefield-type questions.

He was reminded that in the off-season, North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora said at a booster event that he didn’t want to “legitimize” NC State. Normally the type of comment that would provoke at least a subtle jab from O’Brien, he only said: “That’s like recruiting rhetoric – it’s the same thing that happens in rival games. You just forget about it and move on. It doesn’t mean a lot.”

Wait, what?

So both teams are left to pump themselves up for this game. Of course, that hasn’t been an issue for NC State. But under former head coach Butch Davis, UNC was thought to be taking the game too lightly – or, at least, not as seriously as their neighbors up I-40. Davis often refused to recognize the significance of the game. North Carolina fans would often blame that attitude for the losses.

But Renner seemed to take offense to that notion. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. We know how we prepare and how we want to play. I think if you’re a fan … you’re always going to have your opinion against the other person. So I think that’s where everybody voices their opinions from and it’s based on that. But as far as do we not take it as (seriously), (does NC State) take it more personally, I don’t think that’s the case. I think we really look forward to playing them. They’re a very good opponent. Right down the street from us, so we always want to play our best when we play them.”

Fedora isn’t taking any chances, though. He decorates the Carolina locker room with NC State paraphernalia on Sunday immediately after Carolina’s disappointing 33-30 loss to Duke. Posters of NC State celebrating wins, the Wolfpack schedule, even red and white ribbons (“it looked like almost like he went to party city and put up all the flyers and the big hoopla,” Renner said). When told about it, O’Brien got as controversial as he would get all week, and that was with a joke: “I mean, I wasn’t over there. I was flying back, so I don’t know who did it.”

NC State is on a two-game winning streak with a win over a top-five Florida State team and their first Atlantic Division road win a week ago at Maryland. North Carolina is coming off of a 33-30 loss at Duke, its third this season by five points or less. Carolina is 1-3 in those games while NC State is 3-1 in close games.

NC State safety Earl Wolff is never at a loss for words, and even he was low-key about the rivalry. For the most part. “I just feel like if we come out and play with that same intensity we played with last year, a lot of people say we’re not really road warriors, we’re not really that good on the road, but if you can’t get hype for the Carolina game then you shouldn’t even walk on the field that day,” Wolff said. “That’s how we feel. That’s how everybody feels. So we’re just going to try to stop them, stop their offense and win that game.”

If it sounds simple, it’s been just that simple for NC State in recent years. It’s an uphill battle for the Tar Heels, who have lost games to the Wolfpack in the last five years similarly to the way they’ve lost games this season: close, and late. Carolina has lost to NC State in a blowout, and after falling behind early and having comebacks fall short, and even after losing late leads.

Carolina has become famous for its comebacks this year, except for the fact that none of their comebacks have resulted in wins. But Carolina has erased – or nearly erased – second-half deficits of 29 points and 14 points (in the fourth quarter last week) this season, only to fall just short. “If we can just focus, put together our game plan, not shoot ourselves in the foot, do what’s necessary early on then it won’t matter,” UNC right guard Jonathan Cooper said. “If we’re able to finish drives not with field goals but with touchdowns then we won’t be talking about the last late minutes of the quarter.”

A few slightly different bounces of the football (specifically, Maryland’s kicker bouncing a 30-yard field goal inside the goal post), and NC State would have also been on the end of a heartbreaking loss. But after three close wins this season (two in the last two contests), the Wolfpack feels confident it can win those games. And of course, they’re confident that if they play like they should, they can win their sixth straight.

NC State has been an inconsistent bunch under O’Brien, but when they’re on, as Wolff pointed out, they’re hard to stop. They just want to stay loose, relax and have fun. And why not? It’s worked so far.

“Sometimes, you see spotlights during games, we bring that energy. When we have that energy, it’s hard for a lot of teams to stop us,” Wolff said. “Coach O’Brien talks a lot about enthusiasm, everybody being very enthusiastic and it starts in practice. I feel like once somebody makes a play and I get hype, it feeds off to other people….We’re going to have to just reenact that out, really, and just have fun. It’s all about having fun. That’s what football is about. We’re going to try to have fun and win Saturday.”

Moments in NC State-North Carolina history: Just as I ran across the gem of the Duke mascot nearly killing a UNC student with a trident in an old Daily Tar Heel, I found some other NC State-related tales as well. From the November 3, 1935 DTH:

NC State students came over right before the football game to try to steal Rameses III and got a ewe instead. They stole instead a black bull, a “perfumed billy goat and a horse that laughed.” They disguised themselves as Carolina students. “But the ways of city fellers are queer and, and, after chasing the poor critter half way back to Raleigh, they finally got it in the car to be put on display at a State pep rally. One thing was overlooked. Rameses III is a ram, but not this substitute which made no difference to engineers, reserve officers or city fellers. State students obviously don’t believe in stealing rams, like ewe, ewe and ewe.”

At the State game in Raleigh, State fans brought in two cows that had red-painted signs that read “We’ll Beat Carolina and This Is No Bull” and the other said “Carolina is a Lot of Bull”. One cow wouldn’t move and they had to carry it. The State ram got loose and threw off the State colors, causing the Carolina fans to stand and cheer, but they caught the ram. Some kids from Chapel Hill High steal a sign and half of the State stands chase after them and get it back.

From the 1999 10-6 Carolina win, a thriller that saw perhaps two of the worst quarterbacked games in each school’s history:

Equal time: Russell Wilson’s crazy “Hail Mary” against North Carolina in 2010:

A look back at the good old days when both coaches would talk some trash (and by “good old days” I mean “last year”):

Prediction: NC State, 27-24. Unlike Las Vegas, who has made the Tar Heels the favorites for each of the last five games, I’ll believe that North Carolina will beat NC State once it actually happens. They’re capable of doing it, and it seems like the rivalry is due for a UNC win. But of two inconsistent teams, I’ll go with the one that seems the least inconsistent.

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