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Game Preview: UNC at #25 Duke

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Duke, 7:30 PM, ESPN

It's real simple for UNC.

The Tar Heels can win back the Victory Bell, prevent Duke from winning the Coastal Division, become bowl eligible and make something out of a season that has been a huge roller coaster, all on the same night.

And that concludes the "simple" portion of the program.

UNC heads to Durham tonight to play in a high stakes ESPN Thursday Night Game against Duke. Both teams have significant goals at stake though Duke certainly is chasing a much bigger prize than UNC. Duke is presently tied in the loss column with Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets concluded their ACC slate last weekend with a win over Clemson to finish 6-2. Duke, at 4-2, holds the tiebreaker on Georgia Tech via a win in Atlanta which means all the Blue Devils need to do is win tonight and beat woeful Wake Forest next weekend to secure a spot opposite Florida State in the ACC Championship Game. It would be Duke's second straight division title and give the Blue Devils a shot at playing spoiler against what could be an undefeated FSU team.

UNC is playing for bowl eligibility which the Tar Heels can still get next week at home versus NC State. However, UNC can do more than be bowl eligible. Seven wins, maybe eight is possible if the Heels can clear this hurdle. There is also the matter of the Victory Bell which has resided in Durham since 2012 and has never been won on Larry Fedora's watch. Bringing it back to Chapel Hill and ridding it over that awful shade of blue is a high priority.

The question for UNC is how to win this game. Chances are this game will require the same sort of approach the Tar Heels have used in previous wins. The defense is going to give up points but at the same time the defense is capable of getting enough stops to allow the offense to keep pace. The offense, prone to slow starts, needs to take advantage of every opportunity and avoid turning the ball over. Duke is not a team that makes mistakes. Last week against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils has an uncharacteristically bad game in this regard. It stands to reason that sort of thing won't happen two weeks in a row, especially since UNC's defense doesn't do much to invite those mistakes. When receivers are wide open and the holes for running backs wide, it decreases the opportunities for turnovers. That being said, Duke QB Anthony Boone is prone to inaccuracy with his passes which could serve to bail the UNC defense out or deliver a turnover or two.

On the offensive side of the ball, UNC's best chance of success will be Marquise Williams. This isn't a mystery at this point. Williams is UNC's best playmaker and his ability to work within Larry Fedora's offense makes him the prime candidate to carry the Heels to a sixth win. Against Duke last season, Williams was 17-36 for 223 yards, 1 TD and two INTs but rushed for 104 yards on 16 carries and a pair of scores. Williams' rushing game this season has been outstanding with ten touchdowns and two 100 yard games.  Williams also  shouldn't have to do it alone and given Duke's rushing defense is ranked 79th in yards per play. T.J. Logan ran for 92 yards in the win over Pittsburgh and if he can reproduce that it makes UNC's offense that much better. The combination of his running and Williams ability to effectively fake the run in the read option opened the door for the Heels to keep drives moving against Pitt.

Duke's pass defense will be an issue for Williams as indicated by his less than 50% completion rate and two interceptions has season. In two seasons, Williams has had one game where he competed less than 50% of his passes and that the loss to Duke in 2013. Duke's pass defense is highly effective with 11 INTs and just seven passing touchdowns surrendered. A huge reason for that is the play of safety Jeremy Cash. The presence of Cash in the defensive backfield will make is difficult for Mack Hollins to find openings down field. If Hollins is bottled up in the same manner he was last week against Pitt, Quinshad Davis could be the beneficiary. Davis had a season high six catches for 66 yards against the Panthers. With Hollins well covered, Davis became Williams' favorite target after being a non-factor in the previous three games.

Then there is Ryan Switzer who has had at least one solid game as a receiver and in others turned in the occasional big play off screen passes. It has become a broken record but could this game be the one Switzer gets his first punt return for a touchdown of the season. Switzer hasn't really come close on any punt he's seen through ten games. The chances that changes here are pretty slim. Duke does a great job on special teams and punter Will Monday comparable to UNC's Tommy Hibbard.

Duke heads into the game as  a six point favorite but the recent history says this game will be close though probably high scoring. UNC is still dealing with the lack of a decent kicking game meaning should this come down to a matter of points, the Tar Heels will need to find the end zone for the win.