Last Weekend/This Weekend
In ACC/NC College Football
By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

There were plenty of well-deserved accolades nationally during college football’s Week One, including new Colorado coach Deion Sanders leading the Buffaloes to a surprising 45-42 victory at #17 Texas Christian and #8 Florida State trouncing #5 LSU 45-24 in Orlando, but closer to home there were plenty of outstanding candidates for Olympic-style medal honors, as well, so here goes….

Week One State-of-North-Carolina GOLD Medal

Duke’s 28-7 victory over #9 Clemson

This was one of the greatest wins in modern Duke football history, period, and we at the new North Carolina Sports Network were there to see it! Shout-out to Mike Waddell of our staff for his great coverage of that amazing game at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, which ended up being the fourth most-watched game of the entire college football weekend.

Prior to Monday night, the Blue Devils’ most recent win over a top-10 opponent had come way back in 1989, when legendary coach Steve Spurrier (who, fittingly, was honored along with his 1989 team at Wallace Wade on Monday night) was in his final season leading the Blue Devils.

Remember, 1989 also marks the last time the Devils won the ACC football championship. They actually shared the title that year by finishing in a first-place tie in the conference standings with Virginia, just a few years before Florida State joined the ACC and long before college football leagues started playing conference title games in early December, as they do now. Hence, the “shared” ACC championship between the Devils and the Wahoos back in 1989, 34 years ago.

I don’t know anyone who predicted a Duke win against this Clemson team, much less a Duke win by three touchdowns, but the “How They Did It” aspect of this game ultimately boiled down to exactly what Chris Edwards and I discussed on our weekly Old North State Tailgate podcast, which I hope you’ll consider making a part of your routine — whether you like the video or the audio version — every Saturday morning during college football season.

The one and perhaps only clear-cut advantage the Blue Devils had, going into Labor Day night, was the confidence, poise and experience of their proven-star quarterback Riley Leonard, who threw the ball “well enough” against a star-studded Clemson defense and ran it extremely well, leading the Devils with 98 rushing yards, including a 44-yard touchdown jaunt while showing amazing balance under pressure from Clemson defenders all the way down the sideline.

As Chris and I discussed last Saturday morning, Clemson QB Cade Klubnik definitely has talent; he was a prep All-American, and he was last year’s ACC championship game MVP, off the bench, during the Tigers’ dominating win over UNC in Charlotte.

However, there was no way of knowing how Klubnik (in just his second career start) would react — on the road, in front of a Labor Day Night national TV audience, against a solid Duke program that won nine games last season — if he encountered significant adversity against the Blue Devils.

Well, sure enough, and this is a credit to second-year Duke head coach Mike Elko (the 2022 ACC coach of the year, long-time coordinator and universally respected defensive guru) and his defensive players, when the Blue Devils showed they were going to be at least competitive with the Tigers’ high-level athleticism, and when the Devils’ defensive game plan frustrated the Tigers early, Klubnik slowly but surely lost confidence and obviously put massive pressure on himself.

The Tigers ultimately fell completely apart offensively. Anxiety can be contagious, and it clearly was for Clemson’s offense against the Devils.

Klubnik repeatedly threw into coverage, he botched several very basic exchanges with his running backs, he slid too early and perhaps forgot where the refs mark the ball on QB slides on a crucial fourth-down play that resulted in a turnover on downs, and he just generally looked out of sorts, especially when the Tigers entered the red zone.

In the end, Clemson had many more first downs than Duke, more total yards than Duke, and far more time of possession than Duke, but the Tigers’ many offensive miscues and red-zone meltdowns were products of both a smart and effective Blue Devils defense and a Clemson offensive unit whose gradually building anxieties and poor judgments ultimately reflected those of their young and inexperienced QB.

When Duke beat a top-10 Clemson team back in 1989, it happened in large part because of the offensive genius of Spurrier and his players’ ability to execute that plan. When Duke beat a different top-10 Clemson team here in 2023, the Blue Devils did so primarily because of the defensive genius of Elko and his players’ ability to execute their brilliant plan, with the help of a wild and screaming home crowd, against the very talented but clearly nervous and ultimately vulnerable Tigers.

Week One State-of-North-Carolina SILVER Medal

North Carolina’s 31-17 victory over South Carolina at the Duke’s Mayo Classic in Charlotte

(Side note: We were there with our Old North State Tailgate & Traveling Sports Circus to see this one, too! Special thanks to those of you who stopped by our tents and games at Fan Fest, immediately next to Bank of America Stadium.)

One game does not make a season, obviously, but to get where they want to go this season, the Tar Heels simply had to beat the Gamecocks. They did so convincingly, dominating the line of scrimmage defensively and controlling it offensively, a combination you don’t often see from most ACC teams when they play most SEC teams.

To get where they want to go this season, the Tar Heels also had to show dramatic improvement on defense, where the Heels were mostly horrible a year ago during their 9-5 campaign. Carolina clearly accomplished that goal, too, sacking star Gamecocks quarterback Spencer Rattler nine times, Carolina’s most sacks in a single game since 2000.

Defensive ends Kaimon Rucker and Amari Gainer (a Florida State transfer), among others, harassed Rattler all night long, linebackers Cedric Gray and Power Echols helped limit the Gamecocks to minus-two rushing yards on 31 attempts, and transfer cornerback Alijah Huzzie (an FCS All-American last year at East Tennessee State) added some stability to a Carolina secondary that badly needed it and likely will need much more of it this season. The Heels have suffered significant injuries and attrition on the back end, including a season-ending lower-body injury to starting safety DeAndre Boykins that was announced just minutes before the kickoff against the Gamecocks.

Offensively, the Tar Heels weren’t great, but they won by two touchdowns anyway, and that’s a very good sign.

Star QB Drake Maye threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns but also had two uncharacteristic interceptions. Veteran running back British Brooks got the start in a crowded backfield and ran for a game-high 103 yards on 15 attempts, although despite its impressive depth at the position, it’s not clear if Carolina has a true star at running back this season.

Elsewhere, with Josh Downs and Antoine Green now in the NFL, Kent State transfer Tez Walker still sidelined by NCAA eligibility complications and Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum unavailable because of a lower-body injury, UNC’s wide receiver corps looked only OK against the Gamecocks, with as many drops as big plays, although Kobe Paysour stood out with 7 catches for 66 yards, including a 34-yard touchdown reception.

UNC’s offensive line also looked solid, and its three-man rotation of John Copenhaver, Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit looks as good as any tight end depth chart in the nation.

Week One State-of-North-Carolina BRONZE Medal

NC Central’s 47-21 demolition of Winston-Salem State

This game was 37-0 in favor of the Eagles at halftime, and that better reflects NC Central’s dominance in the game, before the reserves played a lot more in the second half.

This game is an award-winner in part to highlight Eagles QB Davius Richard, who threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 42 yards and a TD on Saturday, but this wasn’t his best statistical performance, in part because he gave way to his backup during the blowout as well.

Richard is the rare four-year starter at quarterback in college football, and he’s the rare QB from the FCS and HBCU ranks who’s on the radar of National Football League scouts.

A 6-foot-3, 220-pound fifth-year senior from Glades Central High School in Florida, a very well-known program in the Sunshine State, which is famous for its high-level prep football, Richard is either #1 or #2 in the NC Central history books in passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense, completion percentage and various other important categories.

With a strong senior season, Richard could become the first HBCU quarterback selected in the NFL draft since Tarvaris Jackson of Alabama State back in 2006. A second-round draft pick, Jackson ended up playing in the NFL for nine seasons.

Everyone at the Old North State Tailgate & Traveling Sports Circus is looking forward to seeing Richard go against archrival North Carolina A&T on Saturday night in the Aggie-Eagle Classic, one of the great, long-standing college football rivalries here in North Carolina and in all of the HBCU ranks. More on that game shortly…

Elsewhere in Week One

Wake Forest’s 37-17 win over Elon, NC State’s 24-14 win at UConn and App State’s 45-24 win over Gardner-Webb could be classified as “taking-care-of-business victories,” games you’re supposed to win and win convincingly.

It took the Mountaineers a long time to get control of the Gardner-Webb game, but after an injury to starting QB Ryan Burger, backup Joey Aguilar (a junior college transfer who enrolled at App State in January) got the job done in impressive fashion, with four touchdowns.

The best news for Wake Forest and NC State was that their defenses mostly controlled their games and sometimes dominated those games against Elon and UConn, respectively. Moving forward, the greatest room for growth for both Wake and State is offensively.

New Wake QB Mitch Griffis (the successor to Sam Hartman, now at Notre Dame) did some good things against Elon but also threw a pick-six and held the ball too long on several plays that resulted in sacks, and the Demon Deacons did not look great running the ball, which coach Dave Clawson has said is a big priority this year.

New NC State QB Brennan Armstrong won the UConn game with his legs, rushing for almost 100 yards and scoring two TDs on the ground, but the Wolfpack needs a stronger running game from its offensive line and tailbacks, and Armstrong needs to continue to develop chemistry with his new group of wide receivers, among whom Kevin Concepcion — a true freshman from Chambers High School in Charlotte who enrolled at State in January — looks especially promising.

In other notable Week One games, ECU was expected to get crushed at Michigan, and that’s exactly what happened to the Pirates (30-3). Western Carolina was supposed to get crushed at Arkansas, and that’s exactly what happened to the Catamounts (56-13). Everyone will learn a lot more about ECU, Western and most of these other in-state teams in the weeks to come, when they’re back fighting in their own weight classes, so to speak.

Looking ahead to Week Two in college football, there may be only one “can’t-miss” game nationally this week, and that’s #11 Texas visiting #4 Alabama in the Saturday night ESPN game. After that, maybe #23 Texas A&M’s trip to Miami for the 3:30 pm game on ABC is worth a look.

Otherwise, for the second week in a row, a good argument could be made that the Old North State includes some of college football’s most compelling matchups. With that in mind…

“Three To See” in ACC/NC College Football (Week Two)

#1 — #10 Notre Dame (2-0) at NC State (1-0), Sat., noon, ABC

The Irish (eight-point favorites) and the Wolfpack have played only three previous games on the gridiron — one in a bowl game, one in Raleigh, and one in South Bend — and all of them were memorable.

The winningest Wolfpack football team ever — the 2002 group, coached by Chuck Amato and led by superstar quarterback Philip Rivers — dominated the Irish 28-6 in the Gator Bowl that year, putting the finishing touches on an 11-3 season that remains to this day the only season of 10 or more wins in Wolfpack football history.

More recently, the Irish traveled to Raleigh in 2016, and I was there with a previous version of my Tailgate Tour. In the midst of Hurricane Matthew, which dumped about eight inches of rain on the Triangle in a fairly short period, I had to send my entire staff — including Carolina Hurricanes “Storm Squad” members! — home early from our extremely windy and ridiculously rainy pre-game festivities. The not-exactly-football game played on a saturated field wasn’t very pretty, either, with a fourth-quarter blocked punt return by safety Dexter Wright the only TD of the game in a truly ugly 10-3 Wolfpack victory.

The Irish got revenge the next year in South Bend, in a battle of nationally ranked teams, as the #9 Irish pounded the #14 Pack 35-14.

This year, Hartman (who spent the past five years at Wake Forest and is now 24 years old!) and Armstrong are two of the interesting angles in this game.

Hartman was only 1-2 as a starter against State while with the Demon Deacons, including 0-2 at Carter-Finley Stadium, and his personal statistics reflected that mixed bag, with an average of almost 275 passing yards per game and six total touchdown passes, but also six interceptions and 13 sacks.

Hartman is off to a sizzling start at Notre Dame, albeit against inferior opposition; the Wolfpack — whose defense looked very solid except for a couple explosion plays against UConn — will be by far his biggest test as a Notre Dame player, but he’ll be bringing a bunch of NFL-caliber offensive linemen and some big-time skill players with him on this trip to Raleigh.

Armstrong, a UVa transfer who will turn 24 years old in October, has never played against Notre Dame; he was injured and unavailable when the Cavaliers played the Fighting Irish two years ago. Armstrong ran very well in the Wolfpack’s win over UConn last week, but he probably will need much more help from his line, receivers and running backs for the Pack to pull out a victory against the 10th-ranked Irish, who finished 9-4 and ranked in the Top 25 last season in their first year under head coach Marcus Freeman.

#2 — App State (1-0) at #17 UNC (1-0), Sat., 5:15 pm, ACCN

The Mountaineers and the Tar Heels (18-point favorites) have played only three times previously on the gridiron, and two of those three games are actually pretty easy to remember, because they happened very recently and they both went down to the wire.

App State went to Chapel Hill in 2019 and beat the Tar Heels 34-31 at Kenan Stadium, then Carolina got revenge last year at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone with that crazy 63-61 victory, during which the Mountaineers scored 40 points in the fourth quarter.

(The only other time these two schools have played each other in football — no apologies needed if you don’t remember — was in 1940, during World War Two; that was a 56-6 victory for the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill.)

This year’s App State-UNC matchup actually concludes the three-game contract the two schools signed back in 2017.

While it’s true that Power Five teams are supposed to beat Group of Five teams, generally speaking, it’s also true that App State’s last seven games against Power Five opponents all were decided by seven points or fewer. So it’s not just the Tar Heels who have had their hands full with the Mountaineers.

Remember, App State went to Texas A&M last September and beat coach Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies on their home field in front of 93,o00-plus people. Obviously, the Mountaineers would love to do the same against the Tar Heels on Saturday night, although their job likely will be more difficult this time.

UNC should win this game convincingly, for reasons related to both teams.

App State lost a large majority of its production from last season, the Mountaineers are playing with their backup quarterback and two new offensive tackles, and they struggled against FCS opponent Gardner-Webb for the majority of their game last week before winning.

Meanwhile, UNC has maybe its best NFL quarterback prospect ever in Maye, a seemingly solid line, enough weapons around him, and — perhaps most importantly, in stark contrast to last season — a defense that looked great against South Carolina, with veteran ends Rucker and Gainer, veteran linebackers Gray and Echols, and new cornerback Huzzie leading the way.

If Carolina’s defensive front can set the tone against App State the way it did against South Carolina, this game will not be as close as the last two seesaw-style meetings between the Mountaineers and the Tar Heels.

#3 — #18 NC Central at North Carolina A&T, Sat., 7 pm, FloSports

These two schools have been going at it in the famous “Aggie-Eagle Classic” every year, with just a handful of exceptions, since 1922, or slightly more than 100 years ago!

The matchup typically rotates back and forth between the two schools’ football stadiums — A&T is in Greensboro (this year’s game is at A&T’s Truist Stadium), Central is in Durham — although it’s also been held in Raleigh or Charlotte at times. Last year, it was back in the Queen City for the rivalry’s 100th anniversary game, which the Eagles won to break a four-game losing streak to the Aggies.

To give you an idea of the national prominence of these programs in the HBCU ranks, including in modern times, Central has four all-time HBCU national titles, including last year’s championship, and A&T has eight HBCU national titles, most recently in 2015, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

These two schools are not in the same conference anymore — A&T has jumped to the newly renamed Coastal Athletic Association, where its new fellow conference members include Campbell and Elon from the Old North State, while Central remains in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) — so this year’s Aggie-Eagle Classic will be a nonconference game.

Elsewhere, the 1-0 Charlotte 49ers of first-year coach Biff Poggi get a nice TV slot when they visit Maryland on Saturday night.

That 7:30 game in College Park is part of NBC’s brand-new relationship with the Big Ten, and it’s a very rare opportunity for the 49ers — who halted their football program in 1948, soon after World War Two ended, and didn’t start playing again until 2013 — to be featured on one of the nation’s top broadcast channels.