Junior wide receiver Thayer Thomas outruns a Tar Heel defender during the last home football game of the season against the UNC-Chapel Hill at Carter-Finley Stadium on Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. The Wolfpack won 34-30.

What began as a season with hopes of winning the ACC Championship for the first time in over 40 years has now flatlined for the NC State football team, having lost in back-to-back weeks and seeing its chances of winning 10 games for just the second time in school history slip away.

An outsider may think there’s little left to play for, but there’s an old saying in college football that as long as you beat your rival, you’ve had a successful season.

That’s the mentality the Wolfpack (7-4, 3-4 ACC) will need to have as it travels to Chapel Hill to take on No. 18 North Carolina in its regular season finale.

The Tar Heels (9-2, 6-1 ACC) are having quite the season as they will be playing for next week’s ACC Championship against Clemson in Charlotte. However, they’re coming off an inexplicable home loss last week against Georgia Tech, their first of conference play, which was very much similar to NC State’s loss to Boston College as it blew a 17-0 lead.

Nonetheless, it has still been a remarkable season for UNC, who finished with a losing record in 2021 and was picked to finish third in the ACC Coastal Division in the preseason. This is arguably UNC’s best season since 2015, in which the Heels won 11 games and also played for the ACC Championship.

Central to the Heels’ turnaround has been the stellar play of freshman phenom quarterback Drake Maye, who leads the ACC in both passing yards and touchdowns and is near the top of the national leaderboard in each respective category as well, earning him some outside Heisman hype.

Not only has Maye done damage through the air but on the ground, as well — he leads his team with 597 yards and five touchdowns. His predecessor at the position, Sam Howell, gave NC State fits for three years with both his arm and legs, and Maye has a similar build, towering at 6-foot-4. That’s bad news for the Wolfpack, whose Achilles’ heel on defense is a mobile quarterback.

Maye’s older brother, Luke Maye, who played basketball for Carolina from 2015-2019 and won the national championship in 2017, was always known for having his best games against the Pack, and State fans better hope that gene doesn’t run in the family.

The NC State defense will also have to contend with Heels receiver Josh Downs, who leads the ACC in receiving yards per game and touchdowns with 11.4. Anytime Downs catches the ball, he is a threat to bust one to the end zone as he has electrifying speed, much similar to the NFL’s Tyreek Hill.

Downs experienced perhaps the lowest point of his college career just this past week as he dropped potentially the game-winning touchdown catch against Georgia Tech, a wide-open look that hit him right in the breadbasket but slipped out. Don’t be surprised if Downs comes out motivated and ready to give the NC State secondary hell this week.

Maye and Downs have led the Heels to the top offense in the ACC, but the same can’t be said about their defense, which ranks dead last in the conference in points per game and yards per game. Some of UNC’s opponents have put up some serious points, such as Appalachian State’s 61, Notre Dame’s 45, Duke’s 35 and Wake Forest’s 34.

Despite the poor numbers, the Heels have some of the top defensive playmakers in the conference. Linebacker Cedric Gray leads the league in tackles and fellow linebacker Power Echols isn’t far behind in the top-10, while defensive back Storm Duck has three interceptions. Still, UNC ranks last in pass defense and next-to-last in rush defense.

NC State meanwhile comes into the game quite literally limping as it has lost two straight games and has suffered a plethora of injuries. In last week’s road loss against Louisville, the Pack played without redshirt freshman quarterback MJ Morris, and his absence was sorely missed as the team never established a consistent passing attack.

Along with Morris, the team was missing graduate center Grant Gibson, redshirt junior linebacker Payton Wilson, redshirt junior tight end Trent Pennix, sophomore running back Demie Sumo-Karngbaye, redshirt junior wide receiver Devin Carter and senior nickelback Tyler Baker-Williams. If the Pack can’t get at least a couple of those guys back, especially Morris, it’ll be in for some trouble against the Heels.

NC State’s best chance of winning will be in making this an ugly defensive contest. Even if Morris plays, the Pack simply can’t get into a track meet with the Heels; the offense just isn’t capable of keeping up with Maye and UNC. Like the win against Texas Tech, NC State will likely need to dominate the time of possession, keep Maye off the field as much as possible and rely on the defense to win the game.

This isn’t the season NC State was hoping for, but not all hope is lost. While the Pack will be playing in a bowl game, this is effectively the bowl game. With a chance to send its arch rival into Charlotte with a loss and potentially rob UNC of a 10-win season, NC State needs to pull out all the stops to salvage whatever is left of its season.