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UNC Football at Duke: Three Things to Watch

Reduce free possessions. Free Dazz. Avoid Sacks.

North Carolina v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The battle for the Victory Bell is upon us. Tomorrow, the Heels seek their fifth victory of the season against the 2-5 Duke Blue Devils. The Blue Devils’ lone Power 5 win was against Syracuse. There is reason for optimism, but this is also 2020.

Here are three things to watch if the Heels want to get back on track.

No Freebies

North Carolina has allowed 169 points on the year. That’s a not-so-great 28.2 points a game. On the surface, it looks like UNC’s defense has taken a step back, twice already allowing over 40 points. This, however, is misleading.

55 of those points have come after nine specific possession. Six turnovers, two missed field goals, and one blocked punt have led to short fields for the Heels to defend and leaving points on the board. Here’s the break down:

Syracuse: 6 points off 1 interception and 1 fumble
Boston College: 14 points on 1 turnover, 1 missed FG
Florida State: 14 points off 1 blocked punt, 1 pick-6
N.C. State: 7 points after 1 missed FG
Virginia: 14 points off 1 fumble, 1 muffed punt (both of these were inside UNC’s 30 yard line)

Every team is going to give up points off turnovers. But, 33% of UNC’s points allowed have been a direct result of the offense or special teams failing to deliver. That includes 28 total points in UNC’s two losses (which were both by a measly three points).

If UNC gives Duke free possessions and short fields, another nail-biter will not be surprising.

Free Dazz Newsome

Not to diminish the work of Dyami Brown, Michael Carter, or Javonte Williams, but Dazz Newsome has been hard to find through six games. He is second on the team with 18 receptions for 200 yards and a touchdown, but that’s hardly a competitive pace to last year’s 72 catches for 1,018 yards and 10 scores. For a guy who is so explosive, dynamic, and versatile, Dazz needs more touches.

There are plenty of reasons for the drop off in tangible production. UNC has leaned heavily on the run game, as Carter and Williams have combined for 178 carries while Sam Howell and Jace Ruder have accounted for 177 passing attempts. Defenses have also done a better job of denying the deep passing game. The offensive line has been porous and Howell has struggled to make progress through his reads. There are legitimate explanations.

Truthfully, the offense has racked up yards and points after struggling the first two weeks. They’ve scored in multiple ways, including using freshmen wide receivers (Josh Downs and Khafre Brown) and expanding Tucker Walston’s role down the seam. The offense’s success doesn’t hinge on Dazz’s involvement.

But, it’s a lot more fun and dynamic. It’s also smoother and in sync when Howell has a consistent short and medium threat that Newsome provides. With Beau Corrales expected to miss another game, UNC should look for ways to get Dazz into open space.

Sack Attack

Senior Victor Dimukeje and junior Chris Rumph II, both defensive linemen, have combined for 15 sacks. Each have 7.5 apiece, clearly leading the way in Duke’s pass rushing attack. The Blue Devils currently sit third in the ACC with 26 sacks, averaging 3.7 per game.

Meanwhile, UNC has given up 19 quarterback sacks, averaging just above 3 per game. They’ve allowed 12 in the past three games. With the constant revolving door on the offensive line due to injuries and lack of depth, Sam Howell has struggled to find a clean pocket.

Of course, he also has a tendency to hold onto the ball just long enough to turn should-be-incomplete passes into lost yardage.

On Saturday, both issues have to improve to keep UNC from getting behind the sticks and losing momentum. With a thin and possibly tiring defensive unit, sustaining drives will take on greater importance in the final four conference games. That begins with avoiding getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage.