North Carolina didn’t do well in its first game after earning a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
18th place Tar Heels gets another chance, this time with a loss, and meets bitter rivals North Carolina State.
Friday’s game wraps up the regular season schedule before UNC (9-2, 6-1 ACC) take on No. 7 Clemson in the league championship game on Dec. 3 in Charlotte. It’s another test for Mack Brown’s team to keep their focus with the title game a long way off – a test the Tar Heels did not handle well in a surprise 21-17 home loss to four-win Georgia Tech.
It was the first real stumble of the season for star UNC quarterback Drake Maye and a high-scoring offense, and the defense couldn’t make a final stop late to get the ball back and have a chance at the win.
“We lived with our offense and some plays with our defense,” Brown said. “And to win on Friday, both have to step up and play better.”
The Wolfpack (7-4, 3-4) had a bumpy season and opened it with hopes of winning the program’s first ACC championship since 1979 behind preseason league player of the year in quarterback Devin Leary.
NC State advanced to 10th on the AP Top 25 before losing to Clemson, then Leary went down in October with a season-ending injury. Injuries have been piling up since then, including talented rookie backup quarterback MJ Morris – who appeared to take over the job after Leary was injured.
The Wolf Pack lost at home to Boston College and played without Morris and starting center Grant Gibson in last week’s loss in Louisville. Reserve Ben Finley got the bulk of the work, though coach Dave Doeren isn’t discussing his QB plans for Friday – or the team’s injuries.
“I’m looking forward to competing against them,” said Doeren. “It’s a group that doesn’t like each other. You know my feelings about this. And although this season has taken a different path for us with our injuries, I cannot praise the spirit of this team and staff enough.”
Finley, the younger brother of former Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley, completed 16 of 35 passes for 201 yards and one touchdown with an interception against the Cardinals.
But the Wolfpack only managed 10 points against a Louisville defense known for its ability to stack sacks.
“There are things he didn’t do well, but for a man who was on the scout team up until two weeks ago, I was impressed by the way he treated himself,” said Doeren.
A RARE SPUTTER
The Tar Heels’ offense was a machine for most of the season, but they went just 2-5 in the red zone during the 21-17 loss to Georgia Tech.
“We just had a lot of things down there that influenced us,” said offensive coordinator Phil Longo.
Maye is third in the Bowl Subdivision ranks with 34 touchdown passes despite not scoring against Georgia Tech. He has thrown four interceptions on 391 pass attempts, a 1% rate.
UNC’s Josh Downs was one of the nation’s best receivers even when he was missing time through injury. Downs is seventh in FBS for yards gained per game (97.6) and third in TD catches (11), despite playing two games fewer than the rest of this top tier.
Ahead of the 2019 season, North Carolina won its first two meetings since Brown’s return for a second stint with the program. But the Wolf Pack won last year’s meeting with an unlikely comeback that will live on in the history of the rivalry, erasing a 30-21 in the final two minutes and winning 34-30 after two touchdowns in 26 seconds.
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap ___
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