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UNC Football vs. Duke: X-Factor

All eyes are on the run defense this weekend.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Mayhem at MBS - North Carolina at Georgia Tech Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The oddsmakers have the North Carolina Tar Heels as double-digit favorites for the second week in a row. Apparently, the folks in Vegas did not consider that the awful performance of the run defense last week with the top rushing team in the ACC heading into town this Saturday.

With UNC making a major regression last week with 261 yards allowed on the ground by Georgia Tech, this week’s X-Factor is the Carolina run defense.

In their three straight wins, Duke hosted NC A&T, Northwestern, and Kansas. Not exactly football powerhouses, but they are averaging 212 rushing yards and 42 points per game during their win streak.

The Duke offense is powered by a pair of offensive performers that has put up some good numbers in recent games. Senior running back Mataeo Durant ranks second in the ACC in total rushing yards and per game rushing average. His top rushing performance was in the season-opening loss to Charlotte, but in his last two games has topped the 100-yard mark.

In each game this season, Durant has scored at least one touchdown. Durant tied for the conference lead in rushing TDs, while Duke’s quarterback Gunnar Holmberg ranks fourth in the ACC. In the last game versus Kansas, Holmberg scored four rushing touchdowns. His scores on the ground in that one game is more than his total passing touchdowns on the season.

Beyond their effectiveness on the ground, Durant is second in the ACC in total all purpose yards and all purpose yards per game. Despite some efficiency improvement in the passing game, Holmberg is fourth in the league in total offense and total offense per game.

Holmberg is coming off a single-game career high in passing yards, completion percentage, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. The cherry on top is that Holmberg was not sacked for the first time in his career as a starter.

There may be hesitation with the quality of the defense that Duke faced last week, but Holmberg took advantage of the opportunity.

Can the UNC defense slow down a quarterback that may not be a prototypical dual-threat, but is still making things happen on the ground? It was certainly an issue last week against Georgia Tech.

As for Durant, Carolina must find a way to slow him down. Last season, Durant had his second-best game of the season against the Tar Heels with 132 rushing yards and a touchdown. UNC may be able to take advantage of a concerning trend for Durant in 2021. He has fumbled the ball five times this season, losing four of those fumbles.

Durant has appeared in nearly all of Duke’s games in 2019 and 2020, and only lost three fumbles over the course of that period. Carolina needs to put their helmet on the ball and Peanut Punch that thing out of there.

Can the Tar Heels regain some confidence in their run defense? What will you be looking for in Saturday’s game against the Blue Devils?