Larry Fedora knows. The first-year Tar Heel head coach is well aware of the significance of Carolina's football rivalry with N.C. State, and the five-year losing streak. "It’s a big rivalry game," he said Monday. "That’s been pointed out to me since the first handshake when I took the job."
Fedora and his players will not say that a season hinges on one game, but at 5-3 and with a one-season bowl ban, this game is as good a candidate as any for the Tar Heels to consider of supreme importance. "You don't base your season on one game, but also you understand the importance of the game, because of the rivalry," Fedora said. After losses to N.C. State in recent years, several Carolina players have said that the Wolfpack played the game "like it was their Super Bowl." And for the last five years, it has worked.
This isn't the first extended streak in the series, nor is it the longest. From 1979-1985 and 1993-1999, the Tar Heels won seven in a row over the Wolfpack. From 1894-1919, Carolina was undefeated against N.C. State, with 13 wins and four ties. But this is now, and it's the reality of the last five seasons. Left guard Jonathan Cooper knows that the Wolfpack bring a focus to this game that must be countered. "Just come out and match their intensity," Jonathan Cooper said. "Don't overthink it. Don't get psyched out. Go play one play at a time. A lot of the times, you think about that streak. You think about last year and the year before that, and you just kind of get caught up in all that. So if you just go one play at a time, do your job, it'll be OK."
Bryn Renner was knocked out of the game early a year ago in Raleigh, and the Tar Heel offense never got going in a 13-0 loss. Carolina rushed for just three yards, was 4-14 on third down and was sacked four times. In 2012, the Tar Heels will try to win back bragging rights with a new coaching staff, new schemes on both sides of the ball and a healthy quarterback. "We know what they're going to bring to the table every time we play them, so it depends on us and having a good week of practice and making sure we're ready to go."
One particular point of pride for this year's group of Tar Heels has been their unblemished record at home. Carolina is 4-0 in Kenan Stadium, and Fedora has embraced the branding of the 'Tar Pit.' "Being able to play them here this year, it’s great," linebacker Tommy Heffernan said. "Having the home crowd behind us, we know it’s going to be packed. That’s a big thing: we haven’t lost at home. All three of our losses have been on the road, and hopefully we can continue that and come out and get a win Saturday at home for the fans."
•The Tar Heels will be without freshman bandit Shakeel Rashad. Rashad was suspended one game for a collision against an unsuspecting Duke player last week. Fedora said the team will count on Dion Guy, Norkeithus Otis and Travis Hughes to step up in Rashad's absence.
•Starting right tackle Brennan Williams is out Saturday with an injury. In recent weeks, right guard Travis Bond has slid over to tackle and the Tar Heels have gotten contributions from Landon Turner and Nick Appel on the offensive line.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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