Go Figure: Running on the Pack
For the second consecutive week, Carolina will be renewing an in-state rivalry that has traditionally produced some strange games. And the last five years (all against NC State head coach Tom O’Brien, who could tie the best record of any State coach in history against the Tar Heels) have not disappointed.
Carolina has lost three of the games by a total of nine points. Carolina out-gained NC State by more than 100 yards in two of those games (the lone exception was a four-point loss in Raleigh in 2007 when NC State gained 93 more yards). In the 2009 and 2010 losses, Carolina lost by a total of five points despite out-gaining NC State 885 yards to 610.
So when the stats look so weird, there’s obviously a reason. And for the Tar Heels, a big problem has been their inability to run the ball. Carolina has averaged just 44.6 yards (1.7 per rush) against NC State. In the last two games, it’s been even worse (-2.0 yards per game).
NC State has not put up earth-shattering numbers running the ball, but the Wolfpack has generally been able to run it when they needed to, late in those close games especially. Last year, NC State had 126 yards rushing, its most since the 2008 meeting.
NC State has out-rushed Carolina in all but one game, but even then, their lowest total was 76 yards (the 2009 game when Carolina actually out-gained the Wolfpack by 146 yards and lost). In total, Carolina has averaged 5.2 yards per play against State in the O’Brien era compared to 4.9 for State.
Carolina has also struggled on third down against NC State, converting just 14-of-64 (21.9%) to 32-of-80 (40%) for NC State. Carolina’s 4-of-14 performance last year (28.6%) was actually its best in the series: the Tar Heels have been reliably right around 20% or below. NC State has fluctuated more; after converting 16-of-34 the first two games (nearly 50%), it has dropped down to 16-of-46 (34.8%) the last three years.
And when Carolina has been able to move the ball, it often hasn’t capitalized on chances in the red zone. If it has reached the red zone at all. The Tar Heels are 9-of-12 in the red zone against State since ’07 with just two touchdowns. In 2009-10, Carolina reached the red zone eight times and scored just six times, but just one of those scores was a touchdown. NC State, meanwhile, has reached the red zone against Carolina 21 times and scored 14 touchdowns. Last year’s performance - 3-of-4 with just one touchdown - made that touchdown percentage worse.
The Tar Heels have also struggled with turnovers, committing 14 over the last five games to just four by NC State. The Wolfpack has yet to lose a fumble in the last five years against Carolina, and have gone two full games (2008 and 2009) without committing a turnover. Two of their four turnovers came in the 2007 game.
Carolina did have six of its 14 turnovers in the error-riddled 2008 game in Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels are still losing the turnover battle 6-2 over the last three games since. In Carolina’s two biggest losses in that span - 2008 and 2011 (31 and 13 points) - the Tar Heels lost the turnover battle 9-1.
But somehow, those turnovers haven’t cost them. NC State has turned Carolina’s 14 turnovers into just 30 points, including just three points in the last three years off of six Carolina turnovers. The Tar Heels have 17 points off of four NC State turnovers, but 14 of those points were in one game (2007).
Where it has hurt them - as have their struggles running the ball and on third down - is in time of possession. Carolina has trailed in that stat every year for the last five years by an average of nearly eight minutes per game. NC State has had the ball as long as 16 minutes more (in the 2008 game) than the Tar Heels. The shortest deficit Carolina faced was in 2010 (just 2 1/2 minutes). It shows as the game goes on: Carolina has only been outscored 64-54 in the first half by NC State. But in the second half, that advantage grows to 74-39.
Carolina has the best running back it has had in quite some time in Giovani Bernard, but as Saturday showed, he can’t do it alone. The Tar Heels will have to have a balanced offense and play relatively mistake-free football to beat yet another determined rival that will certainly be playing some of its best football.