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These matchups will provide opportunity for N.C. State on Friday night against UNC

N.C. State has had a 1-0 mentality all season.

No matter what happened the week before, or what was coming up the week after, the Wolfpack stayed true to their 1-0 mantra. The final week is here and N.C. State (8-3, 5-2) takes on rival UNC (6-5, 3-4).

The Tar Heels, winners of two straight in the series, will arrive in Raleigh on Friday looking to play spoiler. The Wolfpack is playing for a perfect record at home, something that hasn’t been done since 1986. N.C. State could win nine games for the third time under Doeren, which would give him the most nine-win seasons in school history.

There’s also an outside chance the Pack could sneak into the ACC title game with a win. None of that happens without a win over the Tar Heels. Safe to say, there hasn’t been more riding on a UNC game for N.C. State.

“It makes it even more meaningful,” Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren said. “I don’t know how much that plays into how we play. There’s a lot of reasons to win this football game. There’s a lot of them. You can pick out of all the things I listed which one means more to you. I guess with my players we can list them all and let them pick which one matters the most.”

Here are the matchups to keep an eye on for N.C. State ahead of Friday’s game.

WHEN N.C. STATE HAS THE BALL

The passing game has been N.C. State’s bread and butter this season. Earlier in the year teams loaded the box to slow down running backs Zonovan Knight and Ricky Person, Jr. and it worked. That means quarterback Devin Leary has been forced to beat teams with his arm. All Leary has done in response is pass for 31 touchdowns — second most in a single season in school history.

North Carolina’s pass defense is eighth in the ACC, allowing 236.8 yards per game through the air. Leary has passed for 300 yards or more in five straight games. UNC has given up 300 yards or more against three ACC opponents this season.

Even though the Pack has struggled to run most of the year, there was a bright side last week. Person found the endzone for the first time in five games and N.C. State had its best rushing total (96 yards) of its last four games.

The Tar Heels’ rushing defense is worse than its passing, sitting at 10th in the conference. If ever there was a game to try and establish balance, this would be the one.

WHEN UNC HAS THE BALL

There are plenty of options for UNC when the Tar Heels have the ball. It starts with Sam Howell, who missed the game against Wofford last week with an injury.

Howell is a threat not only with his arm, but in the running game. He’s the second leading rusher on the team (726) and has passed for 2,704 yards and 22 touchdowns. UNC also has a 1,000-yard back in Ty Chandler, who leads the team with 1,004 yards. If Howell isn’t 100 percent and plays a smaller role in the running game, N.C. State can focus on slowing down Chandler. The Wolfpack run defense has been solid all season and ranks third in the league overall (108.3 yards per game).

There is a good chance UNC will put the ball in Howell’s hands and let him try and take over. N.C. State’s passing defense is fourth in the league, but they are also the worst third down defense in the ACC.

Howell has a matchup nightmare in slot receiver Josh Downs, who has caught 90 passes this season for 1,198 yards.

“They’re one of the best scoring offenses in the league,” Doeren said. “They’re very balanced, 200-plus yards rushing and 250 yards passing per game. I think Sam Howell, man, he’s a fierce competitor. He’s tough. He’s done a great job running the football. He’s always thrown it well, but he’s been a big threat for them with his feet.”

SPECIAL TEAMS

Doeren has two of the best weapons in the league when it comes to special teams. Trenton Gill has been one of the best punters in the ACC. He leads the conference with an average of 45.8 yards per punt this season, which ranks 16th in the the Football Bowl Subdivision. He has 22 punts of 50 yards or more and 29 punts have been downed inside the 20. Both of those stats lead the ACC. Even on nights when the offense is off to a slow start, Gill has been able to pin the opponent deep, giving them long field to work with.

The latest addition to the special teams arsenal has been running back Zonovan Knight.

The Bailey, N.C. native has returned a kickoff for a touchdown in consecutive games. He now has three kickoff returns for touchdowns in his career. Knight is third in school history in total returns and is atop the school’s record books in kickoff returns.

His career kickoff return average of 31.7 yards per game also tops N.C. State history.

Just the threat of Knight back there helps the Wolfpack.

“It’s an exciting play,” Doeren said. “Bam has three touchdowns now in two years doing it, so we’ll see if they are going to kick off or not.”

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV has covered college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central, NC State and the ACC for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.



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