UNC Run Game, Not Ebron, Likely Best Barometer for Rivalry Game

Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

Opponents' skill position stars are having their way with the Wolfpack defense of late, but it may not matter what Ebron does if Carolina continues to be unable to find offensive balance.

While Quinshad Davis is dangerous (415 yards receiving and a team-high five touchdown catches) and Marquise Williams poses a change-of-pace threat with his mobility at quarterback, the North Carolina offense relies most heavily on Eric Ebron. The junior tight end leads the team in catches (35), receiving yards (599), and yards per catch (17.1)*. With UNC so clearly having a guy who's The Guy, it makes sense to see how N.C. State's defense has fared against the other The Guys they have faced so far in 2013.

The table below focuses on the gentlemen from the Pack opposition who have done the bulk of the lifting for their respective teams this season. In the case of Louisiana Tech, no receiver is listed because no one stands out as The Guy. Syracuse also goes without a receiver on the list because the Orange can't throw the ball. Wake only gets Campy on the list because the Deacs can't run the ball. Florida State is omitted completely because the Noles spread the ball around to so many (equally terrifying) options. In case the format is unclear: carries (or receptions for receivers)/yards/average yards per attempt/touchdowns and rushing or receiving yards per game in parentheses.

Player (Position-Team)

Not Vs. State

Vs. State

Kenneth Dixon (RB-La. Tech)

102/580/5.7/3 (82.9 ypg)

22/118/5.4/1

Jacobi Green (RB-RU)

90/498/5.5/1 (71.1 ypg)

9/35/3.9/1

Stephen Barnette (WR-RU)

42/678/16.1/2 (96.9 ypg)

5/94/18.8/1

Roderick McDowell (RB-Clem)

104/539/5.2/2 (77.0 ypg)

14/68/4.9/0

Sammy Watkins (WR-Clem)

48/717/14.9/5 (102.4 ypg)

10/96/9.6/0

Saylor Lavallii (RB-CMU)

140/742/5.3/5 (106.0 ypg)

14/16/1.1/0

Titus Davis (WR-CMU)

29/547/18.9/4 (91.2 ypg)

5/80/16.0/1

Michael Campanaro (WR-WFU)

53/639/12.1/4 (91.3 ypg)

12/153/12.8/2

Jerome Smith (RB-Cuse)

80/399/5.0/7 (66.5 ypg)

19/140/7.4/1

State did do a nice job against the running backs from lightweights Richmond and Central Michigan (teams with a combined five wins) and more than held serve against Watkins and the Tigers, but things are trending in a troubling direction. Everyone in the stadium knows that Tanner Price is going to try to get the ball to Campy, yet the Wake senior managed his second highest output of the season in terms of catches and receiving yards against the Pack secondary. It was also Campy's only two-TD game of the year. Everyone in the stadium knows that the Orange rely on the run game and that Smith is the focal point of that run game, yet Smith had the highest yardage and yards per carry output of his season against State (and followed it up with just 43 yards in a 56-0 loss to Georgia Tech).

All signs point to a big game from Ebron against a Pack defense that lately seems incapable of taking away the opponent's star offensive player. But, if Ebron indeed enjoys a big game, will it necessarily translate to victory like it did for Wake and Cuse when Campy and Smith went wild? Interestingly, in UNC's two wins Ebron has averaged four catches for 63.5 yards. In UNC losses, he averages 5.4 catches for 94.4 yards and has all three of his TD receptions.

The Tar Heels have been TOB-era Wolfpack bad on the ground without Giovani Bernard, but despite a pathetic 2.85 yard-per-carry average, they still attempt a run on nearly 50% of their plays from scrimmage (48.9%, to be exact). They have eclipsed three yards per carry in just two of seven games. Nonetheless, the run game seems to correspond more with wins and losses than Ebron's performance. When rushing for over 100 yards as a team, regardless of the per carry average, UNC is 2-2. The Heels are 0-3 when they don't top the century mark. They have rushed for five touchdowns in their two wins but just one in five losses.

Even if Ebron backs up his big talk and big tweets with a big on-field performance, the Pack defense should be able to keep their team in the game so long as they keep Carolina one dimensional, especially since a UNC team that saw massive turnover on the offensive line has dropped from 11th to 86th in sacks allowed this season. Getting off schedule on down and distance will catch up to them eventually. But if the Heels have any success on the ground, the Pack's losing streak will likely swell to four games. That last happened in 2009. State hasn't lost five in a row since 2006 when the team dropped seven straight to end the season.

Hopefully, come Saturday at dinner time, we're all wondering how many wins in a row we'll have in a new streak against the Heels rather than wondering when this current spate of losing will ever end.

* among Tar Heels averaging at least one reception per game

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