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Carolina Football vs. Duke: Three Things to Watch

Carolina sets out to stop a two-game skid against the Blue Devils.

Virginia Tech v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

In six games against Duke, Larry Fedora’s North Carolina Tar Heels are 2-4. In the 22 meetings prior to Fedora’s first, the Heels had amassed a 21-1 record.

The Heels need to get a win at Duke on Saturday.

It’s not all bad, though! Carolina has actually outscored Duke by 45 in those 6 meetings, so on balance the Heels are 7.5 points better than the Blue Devils? Maybe the Heels are due for their fortunes in a close Duke game to turn.

Or, at least, I tried to make y’all feel better.

Which Carolina Offense Shows Up?

This has been a really easy thing to gauge this year— Carolina struggles against good defenses, and is fine against bad ones. Consider:

  • Cal: 19th in S&P+, 4.12 YPP; Miami: 9th/4.39; Virginia: 33rd/5.62...but 66 yards total on the ground, the worst output of the season.
  • Syracuse: 77th/5.26; Virginia Tech 81st/7.15; ECU 85th/5.72, Pitt 87th/6.85, Georgia Tech 104th/5.58

The median offense in college football this year is 5.79 yards per play, a number that Carolina has exceeded just twice on the season— but even an average output would give the Heels a fighting chance.

Duke, by the way, ranks just behind Virginia at 36th in S&P+, so odds would indicate they’ll land closer to that first group. Nathan Elliott has to shake off the three-interception performance from last week, and maybe he will as he isn’t looking over his shoulder at a more capable quarterback on the sidelines for the first time all season. His best performances came in that situation, when the Heels torched Pitt (no Surratt, the freshmen were deemed unready) and in relief of Cade Fortin in the Virginia Tech game.

Duke does offer an opportunity even if the Heels get behind the chains— with a fairly weak/inexperienced secondary, they’re 106th in passing downs S&P.

Getting Off The Field on 3rd Down

David Cutcliffe, for whatever reason, has Carolina’s number on third down— despite the Duke offense being overall pretty bad over the course of the last six years. They’ve exceeded their season-long third-down percentage every year but one in the Fedora era.

  • 2012: 9/18, 50%, season 34.7%
  • 2013: 8/15, 53%, season 39.5%
  • 2014: 10/19, 52%, season 41.8%
  • 2015: 6/14, 46%, season 43.2%
  • 2016: 10/17, 59%, season 43%
  • 2017: 7/18, 39%, season 39.2%

Looking back at last year’s game, the 19-play, 70 yard field goal drive Duke got out of halftime featured 3 third-down conversions, a 4th down conversion, and completely killed the rhythm Carolina had established on offense right before the half.

Carolina has to keep Daniel Jones in third-and-long situations, and HAS to keep him in the pocket when they get there. I have nightmares of him needing 7 yards and picking up 8 with his legs late in the 2016 game.


The Heels have had the lead— or been within one score with a chance to take it— in the 4th quarter of 19 of their last 24 games.

They’ve won exactly five of those games. Two were Pitt. Two were FCS opponents. And the other was Old Dominion.

One needs look no further than the Virginia Tech and Syracuse games this season to see massive blown opportunities. The Heels had a 78% win expectancy before Michael Carter’s fumble against VT, and got up to 90.9% in the fourth quarter against the Cuse.

Whatever mental block that has seemingly affected this whole team late in games needs to be broken, because if Larry Fedora is still the coach going into 2019, the players, the fans, everybody needs some daggum proof of concept.