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UNC vs. Duke: Players to Watch

The Tar Heels head to Durham for a rivalry showdown with a Duke squad still looking for its first ACC win.    

NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at North Carolina James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina only has two conference games left, both of which come against hated rivals Duke and NC State. The Tar Heels can’t afford another loss and still hold out hope that Virginia Tech gets upset for a chance at returning to the ACC Championship Game. This Thursday night is humongous for Duke as well—outside of just the opportunity at knocking off UNC—since the Blue Devils need to win their final three games to become bowl eligible.

In rivalry games, the old adage of “anything can happen” is definitely true. Even with a less-than-impressive Duke team hosting an explosive UNC team, the Tobacco Road Rivalry can lead to some bizarre outcomes. Let’s take a look at what players to keep an eye on:

UNC Player to Watch: Running back Elijah Hood

Where has that Hood been all year? The junior running back finally had the unbelievable performance many in Chapel Hill had been expecting all year long. On just 12 carries, Hood had 168 yards and three touchdowns. He certainly could’ve had more, too, and many feel like—even with those numbers—he was held back yet again.

With Mitch Trubisky as consistent as they come, Duke’s best chance at slowing down the Tar Heel offense is throwing off their balance. The Georgia Tech game was one of UNC’s most impressive performances of the season because they both passed and ran the ball effectively. 353 yards through the air and 283 yards on the ground is a recipe for big-time wins, and that’s when the Tar Heels are at their most dangerous.

Duke’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and the rushing defense is near the conference’s worst. The Blue Devils give up over 170 yards a game on the ground—only Syracuse and North Carolina are worse. A steady diet of Hood and T.J. Logan can doom the Blue Devils quickly, especially with Trubisky reliably finding his targets.

Hood’s only played Duke once, in last year’s 66-31 rout in Chapel Hill. He only had 69 yards in that game—mostly due to Marquise Williams lighting it up—but he finished with three touchdowns. The big bruiser will surely want to step up and have an even bigger game with, hopefully, a similar final score.

Lastly, it’ll be interesting to see if coach Larry Fedora keeps giving the ball to Hood and if Hood can continue to do a lot with those carries. It’s been a somewhat disappointing year for the running back after such high expectations heading into the season. Last Saturday reminded everyone what he’s capable of, and another performance like that would make the UNC offense totally unstoppable.

Duke Player to Watch: Quarterback Daniel Jones

For teams to beat UNC, they have to score a lot of points or play in hurricane weather. Typically, that means a quarterback having to keep pace with Trubisky. Enter freshman signal-caller Daniel Jones.

In his first year leading the Blue Devils, Jones hasn’t been awful, but he hasn’t been fantastic either. He’s not a particularly accurate thrower—just 62 percent on the season—but he hasn’t turned it over a ton, excluding a five-interception outing against Virginia. His best game came a few weeks ago in a tough, close loss to Georgia Tech, when Jones threw for 305 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

The biggest wrinkle Jones offers is his running ability. He’s a big guy at 6’5” and 210 pounds, and his carry totals throughout the season indicate that. Jones has had five games where he carried the ball at least 10 times. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him do more of the same against UNC; his legs can change the tenor of this game, and an 18-carry, 99-yard, two-touchdown performance like he had against Virginia Tech could get Duke closer to an upset.

UNC also has the worst rushing defense in the ACC. The Tar Heels give up over 200 yards, which is terrible. The passing defense has been much better and sits in the top three of the conference, so Jones’ ability to complete a few passes here and there while combining for consistent runs with running back Shaun Wilson is key. The Blue Devils’ leading rusher, Jela Duncan, is out for the season, and Jones and Wilson will have to account for his 5.1 yards per carry and six touchdowns.

Simply, Jones needs to keep his team scoring and limiting turnovers. Georgia Tech just played UNC pretty evenly in yardage totals, but two turnovers and red-zone inefficiency by the Yellow Jackets turned that game into a 28-point blowout. As Trubisky barely ever makes a wrong throw, Jones has to be spotless to keep Duke in the game. If his dual-threat talent mixed with big runs by Wilson can break the Tar Heel Defense, Duke has a chance.