Tar Heels, Wolfpack talk rivalry all year

On Wednesday, UNC struck first.

There are three tunnels on the NC State campus that run under the railroad tracks dividing it, and one has long been known as the "Free Expression tunnel."

Draw on it. Spray paint it. Fulfill whatever artistic urge it is that might strike.

Just don't paint it Tar Heel blue.

"The student body is going to retaliate," senior running back Andre Brown, a native of Greenville, N.C., said with a laugh. "Normally we have people out there watching, but this week they didn't do it. They slipped and they got us early."

And so begins the latest chapter in the I-40 rivalry between NC State and UNC, two schools separated by just 25 miles but joined by similar friends, parties and high school roots. The game will kick off at noon in Chapel Hill, but both UNC coach Butch Davis and NC State coach Tom O'Brien said it has been talked about all year.

"I don't know that I have to say a lot because it certainly is an important thing, and they're hearing it every day on campus, or wherever they go because it's very important to our school, and that's what creates it to be a rivalry-type game," said O'Brien, who is 5-1 against teams from the state of North Carolina, including wins this year over ECU, Duke and most recently Wake Forest.

UNC, though, is the Wolfpack's oldest rivalry with ACC schools, and the Tar Heels lead the series 30-23. In recent years, close games have been the norm, as five of UNC's past six wins have been by eight points or less. Last year, O'Brien led a senior class that had never beaten UNC to a 31-27 win. This year, there are postseason implications at stake for both teams. North Carolina (7-3, 3-3 in ACC) is still in contention to win the Coastal Division, while NC State (4-6, 2-4) is playing for bowl eligibility and has relished its role of spoiler this season.

Davis said preparation this week has been more important than reminding his players of the significance of the game.

"When they go to the mall, when they go to the movies, on campus, they're always talking about it, whether it's the week of the game or the summertime," Davis said. "They're constantly reminded of it. As a coach, regardless of who the opponent is, preparation is significantly more important. You just try to focus on your job, what you need to do, how to get yourself mentally, emotionally and physically ready to play the game, and generally that's how you're going to get the confidence to play well on Saturday."

The athletes aren't the only ones affected by the rivalry. Brown said he "caused a lot of commotion" in his UNC-partisan neighborhood when he committed to NC State.
"You're either Tar Heel blue or Wolfpack red," Brown said. "It's like the state gets split in half after this game."

Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com.