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UNC vs. Duke: Game Preview

Can the Tar Heels reclaim the Victory Bell?

North Carolina v Duke
M.J. Stewart last year versus Duke
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

For the first time since these rivals initially met in 1888, the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke Blue Devils will battle in September. With the good guys capturing their first win on the season last week and the bad guys undefeated on the year, this oddly-timed matchup will affect the trajectory of their seasons rather than the finality of determining season records and postseason destinations.

It is a 3:30 kickoff tomorrow in Chapel Hill:

North Carolina

Louisville v North Carolina
Chazz Surratt versus Louisville
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke played spoiler last year in Durham. This year, the script is flipped and the Tar Heels seek to hand their archrivals their first loss on the season. However, with this September matchup, the game has much larger implications for Carolina than last year for Duke.

As satisfying as it is to beat the University of New Jersey at Durham and return the Victory Bell to Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels need this win over a Coastal Division opponent. Carolina dropped their ACC opener to Louisville, but the silver lining is that an Atlantic Division loss is not as painful as a Coastal Division loss. Just six ACC games have been played prior to Saturday, so there is still a path forward for the Heels.

However, an 0-2 start to league play may too much of a hole to climb out of since three out of the last four conference games are on the road.

The continuing story line for the Tar Heels is injuries. Coach Larry Fedora discussed this at length during his Monday press conference. The good news, he said, is that he was not aware of any season-ending injuries.

But he was premature in that statement. Last night, the injury report listed linebacker Andre Smith, offensive tackle William Sweet, and wide receiver Thomas Jackson out for the season, among others.

Here is the status of other Tar Heels for tomorrow:

  • Out: Offensive linemen Tommy Hatton and Tyler Pritchett, along with corner Ben Stobaugh and running back Stanton Truitt.
  • Doubtful: Cornerback Corey Bell, Jr. and defensive tackle Jalen Dalton.
  • Questionable: Center Cam Dillard, offensive tackle Bentley Spain, and wide receivers Dazz Newsome and Toe Groves.

The depletion of healthy offensive linemen is something that Fedora said he had not seen before. However, he was assertive in the fact that five players would be ready to go for the rivalry game, although continuity would be a concern.

Fedora praised redshirt freshman Jay-Jay McCargo, especially his preparation during his time as backup before the Cam Dillard injury against Louisville. At center against ODU in his first collegiate start, Fedora said there were no issues with snaps or communication between o-linemen.

The Tar Heels will face the top run defense in the country. Fedora emphasized how aggressive the Blue Devil pressure is on the run defense, and Duke’s defensive line will be a much bigger challenge for the young and patchworked UNC offensive line. If the run is not working, that likely means the Duke front seven or eight is getting into the backfield. This also means less time for the quarterback to throw. The Heels may have to roll with what is working against a Duke team ranked seventh in nation in total defense. If the Heels have to rely on the air attack, quick three-step drops may be the formula to get things going offensively.

In a tale of two offenses, Carolina has been both balanced and pass-heavy through three games. The running game, especially with six rushing touchdowns, was impressive versus ODU after a week where it was nonexistent against Louisville. With the resurgence of the run game last week against ODU, it will be interesting to see if the line can make holes for Jordon Brown and Michael Carter against the tough run defense, and what type of protection they can provide for Duke decommit Chazz Surratt. Overall, mistake-free management by Surratt and a push by the o-line will help with a balanced effort.

On the defensive side of the ball, Myles Wolfolk was penciled in as the nickelback prior to camp, but an injury changed that scenario for Fedora. In his first game this season, Wolfolk picked off an Old Dominion pass. Fedora is optimistic that the return of Wolfolk will improve the secondary, especially with how M.J. Stewart is used. An example of that better utilization of Stewart was epitomized in his sack on the corner blitz against the Monarchs.

But the secondary and linebackers in coverage must do a better job closing the gaps and protecting the middle of the field. Coverage breakdowns and miscues have led to big plays all year, even last week against ODU. Third down defense, especially in passing situations, may be the best barometer of how well the Tar Heel defense is executing the game plan.

Consistent pressure on the defensive line will be a key against Duke. There were times against Old Dominion where the pressure on the quarterback paid dividends, like the Wolfolk interception. However, other times, especially later in the game against ODU’s dual-threat quarterback Steven Williams, there was not adequate pressure.

There were plenty of blitzes from the linebackers, and the relative success of this pressure is reflected in the performance of Malik Carney. Currently, he is 3rd in the nation with 15 QB pressures on the year. Look for Carney and Jalen Dalton to lead the defensive effort to pressure Duke quarterback Daniel Jones.

Duke Head Coach David Cutcliffe mentioned in his Monday press conference there were “a laundry list” of items that Duke’s offensive line needed to improve upon after allowing five sacks and 12 tackles for loss against Baylor. There may be opportunities for UNC to get pressure and make plays in the backfield.

Expect defensive coordinator John Papuchis to stay away from the zone scheme that did little to contain Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson and defend Duke dual-threat quarterback Jones out of their base defense.

The Tar Heels will be sporting the white helmets with Carolina Blue jerseys and pants tomorrow, the same set worn during their 66-31 victory at home in 2015:


Baylor v Duke
Daniel Jones versus Baylor
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones is the centerpiece of the offense. Fedora said that his ability to throw and run opens up options for the two running backs, Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown. Jones is 40th in the nation in individual total offense, generating 702 yards through the air and 113 on the ground in three games.

Wilson and Brown have nearly the same number of carries on the year, with Wilson totaling 293 yards with four touchdowns on 41 carries and Brown carrying for 235 yards with two TDs on 42 attempts. Brown has been more effective out of the backfield, pulling in six catches for 84 yards for a 14-yard average.

The Blue Devils have ran on about 58 percent of their offensive possessions this season. They have scored 10 rushing touchdowns, compared to five through the air. With the running ability of Jones, and the lingering defensive issues for Carolina, expect the run game to be the primary focus for Duke.

Against Baylor, there were several big plays from Duke that Fedora categorizes as “catastrophic.” Wilson broke off a 65-yard run, while Brown had a 34-yard run and a 40-yard reception. While this is a concern for the Tar Heels and their habit of giving up big plays, Duke has also given up big plays. Baylor had a 79 and 44-yard receptions from two receivers, and three different running backs had runs of over 15 yards.

Despite some of those big plays, the strength of this Blue Devil team is the defense. On Monday, Fedora pointed out the ability of Duke to effectively stack the box to stop the run and their secondary’s man coverage skill.

Besides the difficulties the running game may face, Duke’s front seven or eight will challenge Surratt’s decision making ability when the primary target is not immediately open. If Surratt’s scrambles are denied, he must find a way to check-down or throw the ball away.

With questions surrounding the status of Thomas Jackson and Dazz Newsome, the Carolina offense may have fewer receiving targets. However, the big days from sophomore tight end Carl Tucker and senior receiver Jordan Cunningham were encouraging. Duke ranks fifth in the nation in number of passes intercepted with six and 18th in team passing efficiency defense at 96.92. The Duke secondary will pose a challenge to the UNC offense and Surratt must continue to make good decisions with the football.

A major area of concern Saturday will be the UNC offense on third down. Carolina is 89th in the country in third down conversions at 36.8 percent, while Duke is second-best on third down conversion defense at 11.8 percent. Needless to say, the Tar Heels must find a way to keep drives alive.

UNC will win if they

  • Avoid “catastrophic plays”
  • Have a balanced offensive attack
  • Make Daniel Jones one-dimensional

Duke will win if they

  • Continue to dominate third down defense
  • Convert turnovers into touchdowns
  • Run on demand