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UNC vs Duke: Three things to watch

Third downs, injuries, and the running game will take center stage this weekend.

Louisville v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

North Carolina hosts Duke and its unblemished record this weekend in the first ACC Coastal match-up of the year for both teams. As we’ll cover through the next three days, there are many twists and angles to this early season clash. However, there is no denying that a UNC victory would restore some balance to the young season. What are some factors that may influence the outcome?

Duke’s Rushing Defense

Duke leads the nation in rushing defense, allowing 47.67 yards per game. They are second in the nation in defensive yards per carry, holding their opponents to 1.81 yards. Overall, they are fourth in the nation with total rushing yards allowed at a meager 143 yards.

More impressively, two of their opponents were Power 5 programs Northwestern and Baylor. Northwestern has accumulated 481 yards on 4.22 yards per carry. Baylor is averaging 4.87 ypc for 448 total yards. Those totals include their Duke fiascos. These weren’t creampuff opponents. (Ok, fine. North Carolina Central was a cupcake).

If there is one glitch in the stats that may slightly overrate Duke’s defense, it’s that their opponents have fallen behind early. This can often lead teams to significantly alter or abandon the run game. As such, Duke’s opponents have only attempted 26.1 carries a game, the fifth lowest in the nation.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s rushing offense has ranged from explosive to non-existent. The dismal rushing performance against Louisville was sandwiched between two dominant, 200-yard displays against California and Old Dominion. Which UNC team is going to show up on Saturday? With three different rushing options in Chazz Surratt, Jordan Brown, and Michael Carter, will UNC stick to a consistent, balanced game plan? Or is a repeat of Louisville on the horizon?

Next Man Up

Under Larry Fedora, “next man up” started as a mantra. It’s used commonly through college athletics as a rallying cry when a player leaves or is injured. At North Carolina, it has become an expectation and way of life.

Jalen Dalton, Bentley Spain, Thomas Jackson, Tommy Hatton, William Sweet, Andre Smith, Cam Dillard—that’s just a partial list of the injuries that UNC has endured this season. The offensive line has been hit the hardest, but seemingly every position has been hit with a significant injury that has altered original expectations. In the pre-season, the coaching staff moved linebackers to running back because of a rash of injuries. At some point, the coaching staff may have to decide which freshmen will burn their redshirts and join the fray.

Just this past weekend, players such as Jay-Jay McCargo, Jordan Cunningham, and Miles Wolfolk made a noticeable impact when called upon. Old Dominion was a perfect tune-up for some of those fellas. This weekend, who will step up against a considerably tougher opponent?

3rd Downs and Time of Possession

UNC is allowing its opponents to convert 40% of their third down opportunities. That number was improved thanks to Old Dominion’s struggles, but is still only good for tenth in the ACC. Duke’s offense is converting over 46% of its third down opportunities. That conversion rate has allowed them to own an average time of possession of 37:01. That is not what an already depleted team wants to face.

On the flip side, North Carolina’s offense is only converting 35% of its third down chances. That may cause some problems for the Heels. The Blue Devils have only allowed four third down conversions all year. Regardless of opponent, that’s….impressive. There is some positive news though!

North Carolina is averaging a time of possession of 28:19, which is on pace to be the highest average since 2013. Time of possession can often be overstated or overemphasized, but so far in this young season, it is vital to UNC’s chances to stay competitive. They cannot afford many three-and-outs or empty trips across midfield against a ball-control dominant opponent like the Devils.

Third down conversions on both sides of the ball are always important for success. Against this Duke team, it will become more imperative.