Last week’s win over Miami saw North Carolina improve to 5-1, matching their best start to a season by record in a long time. This week, they’re set to return to the state, although they’re headed a couple miles down the road to take on Duke for the Victory Bell.
Under first-year coach Mike Elko, the Blue Devils are off to a winning start, sitting at 4-2. They started off 3-0, including a win over a Northwestern team that was riding high after beating Nebraska in Ireland. Duke has taken two losses since. One is understandable, coming to an upstart Kansas team. The other is less so. It came to Georgia Tech, and while the Yellow Jackets have played better under interim coach Brent Key, Duke had looked way better over the season up to that point.
Duke will come into this game looking to bounce back and also looking to regain the Victory Bell for the first time since 2018. Will they or will the Tar Heels continue their nice start to the season?
Until the UNC defense can string together a bunch of good performances, one of the first questions about any Carolina game has to be about how the opposing offense matches up. So far this season, Duke is averaging 416.5 yards per game, and 6.33 yards per play, which ranks 35th nationally. However, both numbers have trended down in recent weeks, and against Georgia Tech, they put up 278 yards at just 3.71 yards per play.
They’ve tended to rely on the run more so far this season, although yardage wise, the rushing and passing aspects have been fairly similar. Blue Devils’ QB Riley Leonard has had a solid season so far, completing 110 of 167 pass attempts for 1312 yards and eight touchdowns to just three interceptions. While he’s not exactly Lamar Jackson out there, he has 50 rushing attempts in Duke’s six games so far, and has averaged 5.8 yards, while scoring four touchdowns.
The Blue Devils have had five different players catch at least 12 passes this season, so it’ll likely be another interesting test for the often porous UNC secondary.
The rest of Duke’s rushing attack is led by three players, all of whom have put up 200-300-ish yards so far this season. Jaylen Coleman has been the leader of that trio so far this season, having put up 307 yards and four touchdowns on 58 attempts at 5.3 yards per attempt. However, he missed the Blue Devils’ most recent game against Georgia Tech and his status for this weekend is unclear at this time. In his absence, Duke gave 12 carries to Jacquez Moore, who has gone for 7.2 yards per carry on the season, but was held to 59 yards on 12 attempts last Saturday.
With Elko a former defensive coordinator, it’s not too shocking that Duke has improved that aspect so far this season. Last year, the allowed on average 517.6 yards per game and 7.11 yards per play. Those figures have dropped to 379.8 and 5.53 through their first six games. Now, with the exception of maybe Kansas, they haven’t exactly faced a great offense so far. In that day, the Jayhawks’ QB, Jalon Daniels, was pretty effective, completing 19 of 23 passes for 324 yards and four touchdowns.
UNC’s only issues on offense so far this season have either come when they’ve had to deal with a high talent level, like against Notre Dame, or when dealing with turnovers. Duke are no slouches in the turnover part, with their +7 turnover margin for the season being among the best in the country. Most of those have been fumble recoveries, and fumbles haven’t been a massive issue for the Heels so far this season. If UNC can keep the ball off the ground, they should be able to put up a good amount of points again.
Duke does enough well to be pesky and can probably move the ball a bit on the Carolina defense. However, as long as they can put up some bend but don’t break possessions, and the offense doesn’t take a big step back, it’s hard to see UNC losing this one.
Prediction: UNC 38, Duke 27