Perhaps the most daunting challenge for a Duke defense that was shoved aside a week ago in Blacksburg over the last three quarters a week ago, will be stopping a North Carolina offense that is better. The Tar Heels are third in the ACC and 21st in the country with a 40.3 scoring average. The Tar Heels have scored 34 or more points in four of seven games this season. Carolina has scored 48 or more points three times.
While Duke struggled to run against the Virginia Tech defense, the Tar Heels had no trouble running or passing against the Hokies, moving the ball 533 yards on the afternoon. That total included 339 rushing yards against Virginia Tech … nearly 15 times the ground output the Duke offense could muster against the same opponent.
For much of the season Duke's defense was praised for allowing less than 100 yards per game to opponents' running games. Doing anything close to that against a UNC offense averaging just under 300 rushing yards per game over the last three will be a major, major accomplishment.
Duke does have preseason starter Jamal Bruce listed as probable, which will help, but his return will have to coincide with an inspired effort in order to slow things down on Saturday.
With that in mind, here are five players to watch...
Top 5 to watch: North Carolina Offense
1. TB Giovani Bernard (5-10, 205, R-So.): Bernard enters the game as the conference's leading rusher with 652 yards and seven touchdowns. Bernard is also the only ACC rusher to average more than 100 yards per game (130.4). It's the continuation of an early career that started slow after he tore his ACL on the third day of practice in 2010, but quickly picked up speed thereafter.
Last year as a redshirt-freshman, Bernard rushed for a freshman program record 1,253 yards, and tied for the ACC lead with 14 total scores - 13 on the ground. The Blue Devils got an up close and personal assessment of Bernard's abilities when he returned from injury and torched Duke by carrying the ball 30 times for a career-best 165 yards and a touchdown.
Not only a runner, Bernard added four catches for 57 yards. It's something the defense of Duke is looking at seriously.
"He's a great back, powerful runner, but we're going to have some answers," Kenny Anunike said of Bernard. "If the D-line secures our gaps and the secondary is where we need to be, we can make sure we have a handle on him."
2011 v. Duke: 30 carries for 165 yards and one touchdown (5.5 yards per carry); four catches for 57 yards.
2. QB Bryn Renner (6-3, 215, R-Jr.): After sitting behind the departed T.J. Yates for two years, Renner enjoyed a great first year as the starter a season ago, throwing for a school record 26 touchdowns and became only the second player in school history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
Those numbers were projected to only improve under Fedora's spread offense, and so far, so good. In 2012 Renner has completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,830 yards and 15 touchdowns as he's adapted from the old style pro-offense of Davis and has adapted to the quick read heavy spread style of Fedora.
As season ago against Duke, Renner was accurate, but did get picked twice. Of course those two picks were quickly negated by three touchdowns and 274 yards through the air including a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to to seal the game for the Heels.
2011 v. Duke: 21-of-34 for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Two interceptions.
3. TB Romar Morris (5-10, 180, R-Fr.): is a bit of an X-factor out of the backfield. A dual threat back, Morris has 58 carries for 312 yards and one touchdown, while also catching 10 passes for 197 yards and two touchdowns in 2012 in relief of Bernard.
Much of Morris' playing time is, of course, dependent on Bernard's production and stamina, but when he's been on the field he's produced at a similar rate of the starter. The redshirt freshman posted a career-high 202 all-purpose yards in Carolina's 39-34 loss at No. 19 Louisville. He had 149 yards receiving, 23 yards rushing and 30 yards on kick returns. He also blocked a punt.
In week two against Wake, he gained 70 yards rushing on 14 carries, and scored his first touchdown of the year.
With Duke's trouble in stopping the run and with North Carolina's commitment to the ground attack, both Bernard and Morris have been high on the game planning agenda this week for the Blue Devils. Both Morris and fellow backup A.J. Blue are averaging more than 5.3 yards per carry on the season.
2011 v. Duke: DNP
4. WR Erik Highsmith (6-3, 190, Sr.): Much of the reason for Carolina's commitment to the run has been the lack of tried and tested receivers in 2012. That necessity has produced tremendous results, and may not require Renner to look around for targets if Duke cannot better defend against he run. However, if Renner does go to the air, he's missing a number of targets. So far in 2012, the Tar Heels have lost returners T.J. Thorpe and Reggie Wilkins to injury. In addition, senior Jheranie Boyd missed the Louisville, ECU, Idaho and Virginia Tech games with an injury and it is not clear when he will return. Highsmith and Boyd are the Tar Heels' only seniors.
Highsmith's experience and reliability have helped balance the passing game somewhat. He's leading the team with 35 receptions for 329 yards and two touchdowns. A season ago the senior didn't factor into the passing game much, catching just one ball.
2011 v. Duke: One catch for -2 yards.
5. K Casey Barth (5-11, 190, R-Sr.): After missing most of 2011 with an injury that resulted in a medical hardship, Barth is back to finish up his career.
Barth has converted 10 of 13 attempts on the season and hasn't missed any his his 34 PATs. He enters the game in Durham having missed two of his last three field goal attempts, however. Both misses (from 34 and 43 yards came in the game against Miami.
Barth has range out to around 50 yards, and earned honorable All-ACC honors in 2010 after making 19-of-22 kicks.