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2017 Opponent Previews: Duke Blue Devils

September is a weird time to play Duke, but 2017 is a weird year.

NC Central v Duke Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

At the ACC Kickoff, both Larry Fedora and Duke coach David Cutcliffe were adamant that playing the annual UNC/Duke rivalry game in September made it more meaningful. While the last four meetings have had some bearing on the ACC Coastal Division championship, the coaches are right.

The Blue Devils will be playing their ACC opener after interesting visits from Northwestern and Baylor, looking to re-establish themselves as a contender in the division. The Tar Heels will likely be 0-1 in conference play, with an 0-2 start at home likely being insurmountable.

Yeah, the game in Chapel Hill on September 23rd means a pretty good bit.

Recent History

Since 1990, the Heels own a 23-4 record against Duke, including a 13-game winning streak from 1990-2002. This decade, however, has seen three of those Duke wins, each with Fedora and Cutcliffe at the helm.


Noted quarterback guru (seriously, was coaching the Mannings that hard?) David Cutcliffe has another good one in Daniel Jones, and the Duke offense will mix power run concepts with a strong intermediate passing game (not so much last year, they were among the worst teams in the country in yards per completion).

In the moments of dissonance where it’s possible to imagine they’re the Indianapolis Colts, their offense is actually...really fun to watch. Zac Roper runs a Pistol-heavy offense which allows for a ton of versatility with what the Devils can do schematically.

With that versatility, the skill talent is really plug-and-play. One doesn’t remember Connor Vernon, Jamison Crowder, that one McAffrey, or anyone else being completely dominant, but they all put up numbers. Last year, nine different receivers had at least 10 catches, and only one had more than 34. Jones and HB Shaun Wilson split carries 50/50, and Wilson had a 2:1 split with departed Jela Duncan.

Defensively, Duke’s MO is to get as much speed on the field as possible. Only two defensive linemen tip the scales at 300, and only one linebacker is over 230. At some point over the past three years, Jim Knowles went from bend-don’t-break to a more aggressive scheme. This worked hilariously poorly against Carolina in 2015, but with a decimated rushing attack last year, keeping Mitch Trubisky uncomfortable paid off.

Personnel/Players to Watch

Let’s start on defense, shall we? Bryon Fields returned from a torn ACL that cost him 2015 and was a very solid cornerback. Opposite him, Mark Gilbert showed serious potential. To go back to Duke’s more aggressive defensive approach, if they can leave those two on an island, look out for Duke’s defense.

NC Central v Duke
Bryon Fields
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Ben Humphreys and Joe Giles-Harris are two linebackers who will be up for All-ACC honors this year. They finished 2016 with 106 and 107 tackles (to go along with at least four sacks, five tackles for losses, and an interception each, they’re basically the same dude), respectively.

Offensively, it starts with Daniel Jones. The Charlotte, North Carolina native was forced into action with Thomas Sirk’s injury, and he was pretty good for a freshman. He hit 63% of his passes and added almost 500 yards on the ground. He returns seven of his top nine aforementioned receivers, including T.J. Rahming, who for some reason caught more than twice as many balls (70) as anyone else.

The O-line is kind of (?) a question mark in my eyes. LT Gabe Brandner started in 2015, but missed last season. C Austin Davis and RG Zach Harmon were first-time starters in 2016. The other projected starters are career backups, which is fine, but boasting under 40 combined total starts on an offensive line is not great.

Game Analysis

This goes one of two ways: if the Heels still haven’t discovered an identity, it won’t be great. Duke’s aggressive defense will force Carolina’s passing game to make plays downfield, and perhaps force mistakes. Defensively, the Heels have had difficulty getting consistent stops against a Cutcliffe O since, like, 2012.

On the other hand, an aggressive defense lends itself to big plays. The read off inside zone? Yes. Deep play action off the zone read? Open season.

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

Something tells me the players remaining from last year’s team have a bad taste in their mouths about the Thursday night ESPN loss last year. The Heels dropped from #17 in the CFP rankings to out of the polls, and the damned thing about it is that they shot themselves in the foot all game to get to that point.

Heels 36, Duke 27. Closer than I like it.

Fun Fact

Last time this game was played in Chapel Hill, the 66 North Carolina points were the most scored by either side in the 103-game history of the rivalry. Other times 50 points were amassed by one side in this rivalry game:

  • 1959: UNC 50, Duke 0
  • 1970: UNC 59, Duke 34
  • 1997: UNC 50, Duke 14
  • 2000: UNC 59, Duke 21
  • 2001: UNC 52, Duke 17

In the battle of karma vs. history, history generally wins out.

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