Five matchups UNC football needs to win at N.C. State Friday to upset the Wolfpack

North Carolina and N.C. State reversed roles from what many expected entering the season. It’s the Wolfpack, not the Tar Heels, who still are playing for big stakes.

The Pack (8-3, 5-2 ACC) have a chance at winning the ACC Atlantic Division title with a win over the Tar Heels and a Wake Forest loss to Boston College.

The Heels, who were eliminated from the Coastal Division race two weeks ago, are playing for one of the few goals that remain attainable from the start of the season. Carolina (6-5, 3-4) can win the unofficial Big Four title — already with wins over Duke and Wake Forest — and claim to be the best in state.

UNC quarterback Sam Howell returns after sitting out last week’s win over Wofford with an upper body injury. He’s helped the Heels score more than 40 points the past two seasons in wins over N.C. State.

But Carolina enters its regular season finale on Friday as a six-point underdog to the Pack. Here are five matchups the Tar Heels have to win in order to claim a third straight victory in the rivalry game:

DE Kaimon Rucker/LB Tomon Fox vs. LT Ikem “Ickey” Ekwonu

Ekwonu is an Outland Trophy finalist, an award that recognizes the nation’s best left tackle. Thanks, in part, to his blocking the Pack have only allowed 19 sacks all season, which is tied for second in the ACC.

Fox is third in UNC history with 26 career sacks. He currently leads the team with 5.0 sacks this season. Rucker is tied for second on the team with 4.0 sacks. With the way Carolina rotates its front, both players will likely see time going against Ekwonu.

Rucker and Fox have to win a few of those battles. Even if they don’t record a sack, the Heels have to be able to generate pressure and keep quarterback Devin Leary from getting comfortable in the pocket.

WR Antoine Green vs. CB Derrek Pitts Jr.

Since Carolina made it a point to get Green more targets in the passing game, he’s delivered with big gains. Green is UNC’s deep threat.

Averaging 20.3 yards per catch, he ranks 11th nationally, and recorded the longest play from scrimmage for the Heels this season with his 76-yard touchdown reception against Pitt.

Pitts, a Marshall transfer, recorded his first interception against Wake Forest and leads the Pack with six pass breakups.

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North Carolina wide receiver Antoine Green celebrates as he runs to the end zone for a touchdown after making a catch during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Pittsburgh on Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) Keith Srakocic AP

PK Jonathan Kim vs. KOR Zonovan Knight

This could develop into quite the battle. Of course, this is assuming Carolina scores enough to be kicking off multiple times.

Kim has only had 13 kicks returned all season. Out of 73 kickoffs, he’s put it deep enough into the end zone that 59 resulted in touchbacks.

Knight, of course, has returned two kicks for touchdowns the past two weeks. But he may be faced with the dilemma of risking field position by bringing kicks out of the end zone or simply taking a touchback.

RB Ty Chandler vs. LB Drake Thomas

When Chandler surpasses 75 yards rushing, Carolina is 4-1 with its only loss coming at Notre Dame. When he’s held below the mark, Carolina is 2-4 with wins in lopsided games against Georgia State and Duke.

The Wolfpack have the ACC’s third ranked rushing defense allowing just 108 yards per game. Can Thomas possibly do anything more for the Wolfpack? He leads the team in tackles, tackles for losses, sacks and interceptions.

Thomas is the first person Chandler will have to find and identify when his play is called because, chances are, he’ll have to get past Thomas in order to pop off a long run.

NorthCarolinaPittsburghFootball (2).JPG
North Carolina running back Ty Chandler (19) makes a long run as Pittsburgh defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado (87) pursues during the second half of an NCAA college football game Thursday, Nov. 11, 2021, in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh won 30-23 in overtime. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) Keith Srakocic AP

UNC defense vs. NCSU third downs

Carolina is third from the bottom of the ACC at getting off the field on third downs. The Heels have allowed their opponents to convert 42 percent of their third down attempts.

They need stops, preferably early in the game, in order to build confidence on defense.

Third downs are not a strength of the Pack either. They rank eighth in the ACC, converting 40.9 percent of their attempts this season.

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C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website,

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