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UNC Football: Duke Game Preview

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The Blue Devils limp into Kenan where the loser is out of the ACC Coastal Race

NCAA Football: Clemson at North Carolina Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Homecoming in Chapel Hill this weekend. Alumni from all corners of the globe descend on Chapel Hill for a celebration of their time on campus. They catch up with fellow classmates, attend reunions, remind themselves of the beauty of the campus as the leaves changes, and then go to a football game that they hope ends in victory. What makes Homecoming that much sweeter is that the opponent is their neighbors from just down the road, the Duke Blue Devils.

The Duke football program has changed in the two decades since Mack Brown controlled the rivalry in the 90’s. Under coach David Cutcliffe, Brown is going to find an opponent who has achieved a remarkable streak of consistency, and more often than not have been at the epicenter of keeping Carolina from taking the next step forward. The Larry Fedora era started to end in the Duke game in 2016 when the Blue Devils came back to win, and Chazz Surratt’s confidence as a quarterback may have been shattered for good in the 2017 edition. Duke made it three in a row last year in a high scoring game in Durham that saw the Devils win in the end-a running theme that has plagued the Tar Heels for a while. Mack Brown looks to announce the change in the program and start a new streak tomorrow.

  • Date/Time: October 26th, 4 PM
  • TV: RSN’s/ACC Network Extra
  • Line: UNC -3, O/U 53.5

What’s at Stake?

Tomorrow’s game is an important one for both teams. Both sit at 2-2 in the conference, and Duke’s two losses came from inside the Coastal. A third for the Devils will have them out any chance to take the division, and it’ll also have them facing an uphill climb for bowl eligibility with Notre Dame and Wake Forest still on their schedule.

For the Tar Heels, they still, in essence, control their fate for the division even with two losses as the rest of their opponents in the conference are winnable games and the schedule is such that winning out would likely see them come out on top. A loss not only eliminates them from the Coastal race, but puts them behind the 8-ball in getting the six wins necessary for a bowl game.

There’s also the Victory Bell that’s been spending way too much time in Durham lately.

North Carolina Offense vs. Duke Defense

The Tar Heels should have an advantage here. The Blue Devils have only kept four of their seven opponents under 30 points: Middle Tennessee State, North Carolina A&T, a Virginia Tech squad still led by Ryan Willis, and Georgia Tech. Pittsburgh hung 33, Alabama hung 42, and last week the Virginia Cavaliers hung 48 on the Blue Devils, their second highest total of the season.

If there’s one thing the Tar Heels should do is run the ball. Duke is giving up over 136 yards on the ground while only 200 in the air. Micheal Carter knows this well as he finished the game last year with well over 100 yards and was a big reason the Tar Heels hung around with the Blue Devils until the end. Not much has changed, as most teams seem to want to lull the Devils to sleep with a constant attack on the ground and then pop one in the air.

That said, the Devils haven’t faced a high level quarterback since Tua Tagovailoa in the opener. Tagovailoa went off for 339 yards and four touchdowns, and while Sam Howell won’t be confused with Tua anytime soon, he continues to rewrite the UNC record book and will be the biggest challenge the Devils have faced in weeks. Even with multiple names injured, the offense should face an easier time tomorrow in friendlier confines than last weekend.

Duke Offense vs. North Carolina Defense

One of the biggest reasons UVA had such an easy time last weekend was turnovers. The Cavaliers managed to recover all three of Duke’s fumbles, creating shorter fields and putting the Devils in difficult situations. Otherwise, their offensive output matched Virginia’s.

The biggest worry for Carolina will be the quarterback, Quentin Harris. He’s no Daniel Jones, but he possesses the key trait that has made life difficult for the Tar Heel defense this season: rushing ability. Harris is Duke’s leading rusher, Carolina has shown that they just have an inability to contain primary rushing quarterbacks. When he’s had to go to the air, Harris has only passed for an average of 181 yards, but has 12 touchdowns. He has been picked off six times, but three of them came against Alabama and two came last weekend. None of his receivers average over 50 yards per game, but seven different players have a touchdown catch. In short, when he has to go in the air he’s been efficient and made it to where defenses can't key in on one player. That will be an effective test for a secondary that is young and thin on players.

When Harris isn’t carrying the ball, he’ll hand it off to either Deon Jackson or Mataeo Durant. Combined, they have about 500 yards and six touchdowns. In short, the defensive front for Carolina will be tested, and how well they do will go a long way in determining the result.

X-Factor

Containment of Harris as a rusher is the key to this game. If Carolina shows an ability that they haven’t so far this season to limit the abilities of a rushing quarterback and force Harris to the air, it should be a good day for the Tar Heels. If not, expect another slugfest.

On offense, will Carolina have more success on the ground than last weekend? If the running back firm of Carter, Williams, and Willams hits around the range of 200 yards it should mean Carolina ends with a win.

Prediction

The Devils have struggled against even mediocre offenses, and Howell is the best quarterback they’ve seen in the conference. One would think that after the pitiful display containing a rushing quarterback last weekend, the defense will be ready for what they have on tape with Harris.

UNC 35, Duke 14