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UNC vs. Duke: Three Things to Watch

Let’s get back on track, for real this time.

NCAA Football: Campbell at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The calendar has turned over to November, and balls are bouncing in the Dean E. Smith Center again, but don’t let the date on the calendar fool you to think only one UNC team is worth following. While North Carolina is not in the same place they were four weeks ago, the Tar Heels sit at (7-2) and #24 in the latest CFP rankings and have a vast Senior Day matchup with Duke on Saturday to once again determine if the Victory Bell will stay in Chapel Hill. After the dust settled from back-to-back weeks of frustration and letdown, the Tar Heels have a chance to turn the page and get a breath of fresh air by taking down their rivals from down the road.

Here are three ways they can do just that:

Establishing rhythm early

In North Carolina’s eight FBS games this year, I’d argue you can sense the trajectory of the contest after just a couple of drives. Is the defense winning up front? Is Omarion Hampton getting to the second level on the ground? Is Drake Maye getting to his first reads? All questions that seem to dictate what kind of luck an opponent may have against this rocky UNC team on a given day. Virginia and Georgia Tech found so much unexpected success because they found an early rhythm in their respective game plans and never looked back. Not only do the Heels need to prevent Duke from hitting their stride quickly, but they need to find fast success themselves.

Duke has been solid and physical all year on the defensive side of the ball, so North Carolina will benefit from picking apart the Blue Devils with a balanced attack early. A long, steady drive to start the game can open the playbook for later snaps and create more opportunities as the game proceeds. Letting a Duke defense get early confidence after losing three out of the last five is not a recipe for success if you’re the Tar Heels.

Defensively, for UNC, you simply cannot let freshman QB Grayson Loftis get comfortable. If Carolina gets an early stop or two with a sack or turnover, it is hard to see an impotent offense with a young quarterback finding a lot of firepower when facing adversity.

Minimizing Duke’s ground game

Duke ran the ball 41 times in last week’s win over Wake Forest. Mike Elko should have no trouble figuring out that tempo and the option run game has given the Tar Heel defense fits in their losses, so I expect Jordan Waters and Jaquez Moore to hold most of the weight in the Blue Devil offense.

If Gene Chizik can figure out a way to muffle what has been Duke’s only offensive threat since the injury to Riley Leonard, North Carolina should be in business. But if not, it could be another disastrous showing from a unit that has looked lost many times this season.

As I mentioned, Duke does not have much else to throw at Carolina if they can’t run wild on the ground. But I can assure you that they will try, and it will most likely be the tipping point in Saturday’s rivalry matchup.

Holding a lead

North Carolina currently sits at a steep 14.5-point favorite over a banged-up Duke team, so I am under the risky assumption that the Tar Heels will hold a lead at some point in this game. If that holds true, the key is, go figure, to keep that lead. In both of UNC’s losses this year, they have led by ten or more points and missed opportunities to seal the deal.

If and when the offense has the ball up by two scores, please, Chip Lindsey, run the ball and create safe dump-off outlets when throwing it. The Drake Maye Heisman campaign has unofficially come and gone, so it’s time to discard any stat padding and call plays with no extrinsic motivation other than winning the football game.

Hopefully, the Heels use the night game crowd, homecoming, senior day, and slim ACC Championship hopes to try and get a handle on a season that has spun out of control. How can you do that? Put Duke away when you can to keep the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill.