When Duke Has The Ball:
The Blue Devil offense has played much better of late, but chronic struggles in the red-zone have prevented Duke from putting points on the board. If t here ever were a chance to score points in bunches this season, this would be it. The UNC defense is dead last in the ACC in most categories, including total defense, run defense, pass defense, and scoring defense. The Heels just have problems stopping opposing offenses.
Duke will try to establish the run against a UNC defense that allows a whopping 234 yards per game. Tailback Cedric Dargan and Freshmen Ronnie Drummer and Justin Boyle should all be able to find room to run against the UNC front. The Heels are also vulnerable through the air, giving 230 yards per game.
Quarterback Mike Schneider is #6 in the conference in passing efficiency, so he should be able to throw the ball effectively. Despite their miserable numbers, UNC is not completely inept defensively. Safety Gerald Sensabaugh is their leading tackler and could receive a few post-season honors.
The Heels also have four or five linebackers that can rotate in with little drop off in productivity. One thing positive for UNC is the defense seems to be improving late in the year. They are 2-1 in their last 3 games, and have not allowed more than 28 points in any of those contests. Still, all three opponents scored in the upper 20s and Duke should put up one of their highest point totals of the season.
When North Carolina Has The Ball:
The Heels are led by their all-time passing leader, quarterback Darian Durant. He is a good thrower and is dangerous running the ball. The biggest improvement in UNC's offense from a year ago has been the play of the offensive line.
Center Jason Brown anchors a unit that paves the way for the second ranked offense in the ACC. The Heels run a balanced attack averaging 175 yards per game on the ground and 211 per game through the air. Top running back Ronnie McGill has been injured for much of the season, but should find his way back on the field Saturday, if only in limited duty. While McGill is on the sidelines, the Heels can bring out two capable replacements in Chad Scott and Jacque Lewis.
Duke will need a strong performance from the defensive front, especially from tackles Orrin Thompson and Casey Camero. They must clog the running lanes and keep the offensive linemen off of the linebackers. When UNC attempts to pass, the Devils must account for Durant and his scrambling ability. The Duke linebackers, especially Brendan Dewan and Alex Williams, will have to make sure Durant doesn't pick up large chunks of yardage when his receivers are covered.
Duke Keys To The Game:
Take The Ball Away:
Despite UNC's offensive proficiency, they are prone to turning the ball over. They are in the lower half of the conference in turnover margin. Durant has been known to throw interceptions. For all of Duke's struggles on defense, they lead the ACC in creating turnovers. Duke must continue this trend on Saturday. The Tar Heels will move the football on Duke, but if the Devils can finish the game +2 or better in turnover margin, their chances for victory improve greatly.
Time Of Possession:
Until several weeks ago, Duke was struggling mightily in sustaining drives. This was forcing the defense to play too many minutes during the game, which wore them down in the second half. Now, Duke is 5th in the conference in time of possession, because they are sustaining drives and converting on 3rd down. Conversely, the defense is doing a much better job of creating turnovers and forcing punts. The UNC offense can't score if they are not on the field.
Battle Of The Red-Zones:
This season, Duke opponents are moving the ball pretty well between the 20s, but are having a tough time getting in the end zone. Duke is staying in games by forcing field goals attempts instead of giving up touchdowns. The Devils will face a stiff challenge from the Heels, who have scored touchdowns on 61% of their trips in the red-zone.
Conversely, Duke has only scored touchdowns 36% of their red-zone opportunities. Duke will be going up against the worst red-zone defense in the conference, so they must take advantage and score touchdowns.
Whichever team can force the other to kick field goals inside the 20s will probably end up winning the game.
Looking at the game statistically, Duke would seem to be at a match-up disadvantage, especially when the UNC offense is on the field. Rivalries have a way, however, of making statistics less meaningful. The UNC offense will score points this weekend, however, expect less than average. The Duke defense will be ready for the Heels, and will force turnovers and thwart UNC in the red-zone.
Conversely, expect t he UNC defense to play a better game than normal. They will most likely bring the safeties up to the line of scrimmage and force Duke to throw the ball. This will put the Duke offensive fortunes on the right arm of QB Mike Schneider. He has shown in recent week that if he has time to throw the ball, he can be very effective.
Both teams have plenty of motivation. The Heels are positioning themselves for a possible bowl berth, and a win this week is a necessity. On the other side, Duke wants to end the season on a high note and take that momentum into the off-season. There is also the Victory Bell, which both teams would love to ring at the end of Saturday's game.
The game will be closely fought, but it will come down to a key turnover and a big play. The key turnover will be a Duke interception of Durant, and the key play will come from Mike Schneider. It will come down to the wire, but Duke will keep the bell for a second consecutive year.