The Devils will look to carry over their offensive momentum from two weeks ago. QB Zach Asack enjoyed his coming out party down in Clemson, as he completed 26 of 43 passes for 327 yards and a touchdown. For the first time in the 2005 season, The Blue Devil passing attack was effective. His favorite targets were tight ends Ben Patrick and Andy Roland, who combined for 15 receptions. Wide receiver Eron Riley is emerging as a legitimate deep-thread for the Devils, recording 5 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown against the Tigers. Patrick and Riley became the first Duke pass-catching tandem to record 100 yards receiving in the same in 6 years. Of course, Duke will need balance on offense to upset the Heels. The running game has been effective in spurts in 2005. Duke has 3 different ball carriers with 100+ yard efforts: Justin Boyle, Ronnie Drummer, and Re'Quan Boyette. One of the three will need to give the Devils some consistency on the ground. If UNC is able to bottle up the run and force Duke to be a one-dimensional passing team, they will have the advantage.
The Tarheels are currently ranked 10th in the league in total defense and scoring defense, which is a marked improvement from the previous two seasons. They have, however, have been inconsistent with their effort. Earlier this season, they gave up and astounding 69 points to Louisville. The very next week, they were able to hold a solid Virginia offense to a measly 5 points. The overall improvement on their defense can be directly traced to the performance along the defensive line. The previous two seasons, the Heels allowed more than 200 yards per game rushing to their opponents, which indicates subpar line play. This season, that figure has dipped to slightly under 130 yards per game. While the run defense seems to have come around, their pass defense can be had. The Heels allow over 230 yards per game though the air, and have only 7 interceptions. Still, UNC has some very good individual players that will cause problems for the Duke offense. DE Tommy Davis has recorded a team-high 6 of UNC's 24 sacks, LBs Larry Edwards and Tommy Richardson are both in the ACC's top-10 in tackles, and DB Cedrick Holt is second in the conference in passes defended.
When UNC has the ball:
Overall the UNC offense has not had a great year. Only Duke has scored fewer points and the Tarheels are also dead last in the conference in rushing yardage. The offensive line has not been able to create running lanes, which has led to the Heels to average only 2.7 yards per rush. Starter Ronnie McGill missed half of the season with a pectoral injury. LSU transfer Barrington Edwards proved to be a decent backup, but is a lesser threat than McGill. Where UNC has had success moving the ball, however, is through the air. 5th year senior QB Matt Baker is 4th in the conference in passing yardage, averaging 216 yards per game. He has an array of targets to throw to, but his two favorites seem to be WRs Jesse Holley and Jawarski Pollock. Holley is the big play threat, while Pollock is the sure-handed possession receiver. Dangerous slot receiver Mike Mason is a threat with the ball in his hands, but catching the ball seems to be a problem.
The Duke defense played passable football for part of the season, but has slumped badly in ACC play. The Devils have given up at least 35 points in every conference game so far, and have been torched for at least 44 points in 4 out of their last 5 games. They are dead last against the run, and have repeatedly given up big plays through the air. Many of those plays have come on 3rd and long. The Devils have made a habit of letting team wriggle out of jams when facing what normally would be low-percentage situations. There have been a myriad of issues that have contributed to this lack of success, but the biggest problem has been the complete lack of a pass rush. Duke is last in the ACC in quarterback sacks, recording only 14 to date. The Devils will need to pressure Baker into making some bad throws. If this happens John Talley and the other DBs can make Baker pay for bad throws.
The Duke special teams have, for the most part, been markedly improved from the beginning of the season. The punt coverage has been very good and the kick and punt return teams have carried their weight. Still, the occasional breakdown has prevented this phase of the game from being an asset. Duke insists on employing "sky kicks" on their kickoff which almost automatically gives their opponents good starting field position. A blocked field goal late in the first half of the Clemson game ended up turning a possible 21-6 halftime score, to an impossible 28-3 deficit. Duke cannot afford this sort of miscue and expect to win the game.
UNC has had a solid year on special teams. They rank in the top half of the ACC in net punting, punt returns and kickoff returns. Freshman Brandon Tate has proved to be a reliable option on punt and kick returns. Punter David Woolridge is 4th in the ACC in punting average. The one big weakness for the Heels this season has been placekicking. Connor Barth had an outstanding freshman year, but is only hitting 50% of his field goals on the season.
Duke Keys to the Game:
Third Down: Duke has had lots of trouble stopping opponents on 3rd down this season. When UNC is facing this situation, the Devils must be able to make the stop. The inability of the defense to force punts has been an Achilles' heel for Duke. It has afforded their opponents more chances to score, and has caused the defense to tire out in almost every game.
Throw the ball: The last time Duke took the field, they were able to surpass the 300-yard passing barrier against a decent Clemson defense. Going into the game, Duke was averaging less than 100 yards per game in the air. It seems that Asack might have made a big progression in his development as an ACC signal caller. For Duke to have a chance this weekend, Asack must continue to show this development by taking what the UNC defense gives and not forcing passing into coverage.
Win the turnover battle: Duke is dead last in the ACC in turnover margin. The Devils cannot afford to give UNC field position by turning the ball over. Offensively, the Devils have to hold on to the football, and the defense must come up with a few turnovers of their own. If the Devils are plus-2 or better in this area, their chances for victory improve significantly.
Matchup to Watch: Duke Linebackers vs. UNC RBs Ronnie McGill and Barrington Edwards
Despite UNC's inability to run the football in 2005, they will undoubtedly try to challenge the worst run defense in the conference. It is imperative that the Duke defensive line tie up the UNC blockers and give the linebackers a chance to make plays. The Devils must eliminate the mental mistakes that have plagued the unit, execute their assignments and make tackles. McGill and Edwards are both strong backs that can gain significant yardage after first contact. The Duke linebackers have to limit this yardage; otherwise, UNC will move the ball with relative ease.
Nothing would please the Duke faithful more than to ruin the slim bowl hopes of their hated arch-rival. For the players, a win Saturday would provide some consolation for what has been a downright disastrous season. The Devils can pull the upset by playing a complete football game. By playing up to their capabilities on offense, defense and special teams, and not giving UNC any easy points, the Devils can end their 2005 season on a high note.
The game will boil down to one simple question: Can the Duke defense stop UNC? Despite not being an offensive juggernaut, the Heels do provide some matchup difficulties with their skill players. Matt Baker has shown flashes of being a good ACC QB, but has also struggled at times. The Devil defense needs to stop the running game on the early downs, and get pressure on Baker in passing situations. If Duke can accomplish both of these goals, they will put themselves in great position for a win. Unfortunately, Duke will not come up with enough stops on defense, and the 2005 season will end in disappointment.
UNC – 38
Duke – 24