There should be two ornery, determined football teams playing Friday when N.C. State goes to North Carolina.
The Wolfpack, which went into the season believing it could win an ACC title, has lost its past two games.
The Tar Heels, as Coastal Division champions, have a chance to win the 2022 ACC title against Clemson but are coming off a dismal loss to Georgia Tech at Kenan Stadium, dropping them to No. 18 in The AP poll.
Then, there’s the matter of last season, at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Pack snatched victory from the jaws of defeat— or UNC defeat from the jaws of victory, depending on your view — as N.C. State rallied in the final minutes for a 34-30 victory by scoring the last 13 points.
Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren said freshman quarterback MJ Morris, who missed Saturday’s game at Louisville with a lower-body injury, “possibly” could play against in the final regular-season game.
And if Morris can’t go? Jack Chambers possibly could start against the Tar Heels.
And if not Chambers? Ben Finley possibly could make the first start of his career at Kenan Stadium.
It’s also possible that none of the players who were not available for the road game at Louisville — the Pack losing 25-10 — will be able to play Friday. That list: Morris, center Grant Gibson, tight end Trent Pennix, linebacker Payton Wilson, receiver Devin Carter and running back Demie Sumo-Karngbaye.
“The kids that are hurt will fight to get back,” Doeren said Saturday. “If they’re healthy enough they’ll play, and if not we’ll go with who we have.”
That’s a tough way to go into a rivalry game. But every team has injuries to deal with and the Pack (7-4, 3-4 ACC) can only gear up and go to Chapel Hill.
“It’s turned into a lot of guys being injured,” Doeren said. “It’s unfortunate, particularly when we were sitting here with seven wins with a chance to get to 10 and that’s out of reach.”
UNC (9-2, 6-1) rolled out to a 17-0 lead Saturday only to have the Yellow Jackets score 21 unanswered points. Quarterback Drake Maye, whose play had thrust him into Heisman Trophy talk, had his worst game in what has been an impressive season.
“Very disappointing,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of the loss. “Uncharacteristically we really played poorly on offense. We dropped passes, we had six sacks, we were 4 of 14 on third downs. … Our whole offense was off. It was a really, really awful night offensively.”
The Pack’s quarterback position has been in flux since Devin Leary was lost with a pectoral tear. Chambers got a couple of starts before Morris burst onto the scene against Virginia Tech, leading N.C. State to wins over the Hokies and then Wake Forest before the Pack’s 21-20 loss to Boston College.
With Morris injured in the BC game, it was back to Chambers again as a starter Saturday at Louisville, but Finley, getting his first snaps of the season, passed for 201 yards and a touchdown — respectable numbers given his situation. He might be the guy Friday.
The Wolfpack can’t count on another down game for Maye but will try to make it happen. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will mix up blitzes and coverages, looking to keep Maye guessing.
UNC receiver Josh Downs has been a handful for nearly every team this season, although he did drop what would have been a touchdown pass late against Georgia Tech. The Wolfpack defense has intercepted 16 passes this season but has been burned for some big-chunk plays in the passing game and Downs can be a big-chunk guy.
Downs, the son of former Wolfpack running back Gary Downs, had three catches for 31 yards in the 21-17 loss to the Yellow Jackets. His big drop came on a fourth-and-11 play with 4:11 left in the fourth quarter, stunning nearly everybody in the stadium.
“One play is not going to define him,” Maye said. “He’s the best player we’ve got.”
Against the Pack last season, Downs caught eight passes for 75 yards in UNC’s 34-30 loss at Carter-Finley Stadium. The Pack had Leary at quarterback and Emeka Emezie making big-time catches.
“Obviously, it (hurts) that the season didn’t go the way we expected it to or wanted it to,” Wolfpack defensive back Tanner Ingle said Saturday. “It’s always exciting with UNC the last game of the season. Our rival, big game, big crowd. It’s always a fun game.”
Vegas betting odds
The Tar Heels opened as a 6.5-point favorite, according to some Vegas oddsmakers.
NC State at UNC football game and TV info
When: Friday at 3:30 p.m
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill