When Duke has the ball:
The Devils are searching for a measure of consistency on offense. At times, QB Thad Lewis has looked like a very good ACC-caliber signal-caller. At other times, however, he struggles to complete even the simple throws. For Duke to win this weekend, Lewis must recapture the consistency and good judgment he showed early this season in the Wake game. For the year, Lewis is 6th in the ACC in passing yards, averaging 165 yards per game. Unfortunately for the Devils, Lewis has thrown twice as many interceptions (14) as touchdowns (7). Granted, he is a true freshman in one of the nation's premier football conference. He will be starting his 11th game this Saturday, however, and inexperience should no longer excuse poor performance. He could use some better play from the wide receivers as well. In last Saturday's loss at Georgia Tech, receivers dropped two sure touchdown passes on drives that ended up resulting in no points. When Duke's skill players have a chance to make an impact, they need to make the play and not continue to commit mistakes. Lewis would be well served for the Duke running game to get in gear this weekend. With the season-ending injury to starting RB Justin Boyle a few weeks ago, the Devils are forced to turn to the two-man tandem of Re'Quan Boyette and Cliff Harris. Both runners are more dangerous than Boyle, but do not offer the same down to down consistency that will help the Devils move the chains. Boyle's blitz pickup abilities will also be missed on passing downs.
The good news for the Duke offense is that UNC sports one of the worst defenses in the conference. They are allowing nearly 180 yards per game on the ground, and opposing passers are completing 62% of their throws on the Heels. These numbers, however, must be taken with a grain of salt. UNC has allowed only 16 points in their last two contests, including only 7 to Georgia Tech two weeks ago; the same Tech team that torched the Devils for 49 points a week later. The key to this late season defensive renaissance is the improved played of the UNC defensive line. Early in the season, opposing offenses were able to single block every man on the front, allowing blockers to the second level to engage the linebackers. Recently, however, the UNC DL has tied up more blockers allowing the backers and safeties to run to the ball and make tackles. If Duke is to score enough points to win this weekend, they must be able to win the battle in the trenches.
When North Carolina has the ball:
The Heels are very similar to Duke in terms of offensive effectiveness. Or, to put it more succinctly, they are equally as bad. While the defense has been much improved since the announcement of John Bunting's dismissal at the end of the year, the offense has not shown much improvement. The Heels are averaging just 10 yards per game more than the Devils and just a lowly 3 more points scored per game. Considering that Duke started the season getting shut out in 3 of its first 4 games, it is apparent that neither team could be termed as explosive on offense. Most of the Tar Heels' trouble on offense can be traced to inconsistent play at quarterback. Lately, it seems that Joe Dailey has been the man under center, though Cameron Sexton sees occasional action. Neither player, however, has been able to seize the starting job by playing well. UNC has the worst completion percentage in the conference (49%) and leads the ACC in interceptions thrown (17). Despite their struggles, UNC is blessed with two skill players who are among the elite players in the ACC at their respective positions. Oft-injured RB Ronnie McGill is an NFL caliber runner, and will pose a big challenge for the recently porous Duke run defense. Freshman WR Hakeem Nicks has burst on to the conference scene, ranking second in receiving yards per game.
The Blue Devils defense has been quite offensive (as in bad) the last 4 games. Over than span, they have allowed at least 450 yards per contest, including two games where they allowed over 500 yards gained. For the Devils to win this weekend's contest, they must improve significantly on this number. The first priority will be stopping McGill. If the Devils give him too much daylight, it will be a long day. The key to stopping McGill is improved play along the defensive line. They have been without stalwart DT Eli Nichols for much of the second-half of the season, but he might be ready to go for his final college game. If he is unable to play, the rest of the line, led by DTs Vince Oghobaase and Casey Camero must pick up the slack. When UNC is forced to throw the ball, the Devils will most assuredly try to pair DB John Talley on Nicks and force the Tar Heel QBs to look elsewhere for completions.
Matchup to watch: UNC running game vs. Duke defensive front 7
After 7 games, run defense was one statistic the Devils could hang their hat on. They had already faced some good running offenses such as Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, yet were only giving up 80 yards per game on the ground. Since then, however, the run defense has been a sieve. Navy rang up an incredible 440 yards rushing one week after Vanderbilt had put up 250. After sub-par performances in their last two contests, the Devils are now 11th in the ACC in run defense giving up over 160 yards per contest. While UNC has not been able to run the ball for most of the season, they will undoubtedly use Ronnie McGill early and often to try and further soften up the marshmallow-like Duke defense. If Duke can recapture their early-season success stopping the run, the Heels will really be at a disadvantage.
Three Keys to a Duke victory:
Red-Zone offense: The red-zone is where games are usually won or lost. Duke is 0-11 on the season and you need to look no further than their offense in this area as a big reason why. For the season, the Devils have an unheard of 39.4% scoring rate inside the opponents' 20-yard line. To put this putridity in perspective, the next lowest figure in the ACC is UNC at 76%. For Duke to have a chance at victory, they must score when the opportunity presents itself. If not, it will be a long day for the Devils.
Passing: Duke has shown some big-play ability this year on offense, but they have struggled to sustain drives. They have averaged about 150 yards per game rushing since early October, but the passing game has been inconsistent to put it mildly. Bad throws and dropped balls at inopportune times are the main culprits. Duke does not have enough big-play ability to overcome these sorts of drive-killing mistakes. Lewis must make the easy throws and the receivers must catch the balls they get their hands on. If both of these things happen, Duke will score plenty of points.
Defensive discipline: The Blue Devil defense has been scorched recently by poor tackling, missed assignments and, most importantly, over-pursuit. Teams have had great success with misdirection and cutback runs, often breaking off big chunks of yardage at a time. Duke must close off these cutback lanes, especially against a good running back like McGill. If they allow him daylight when he changes direction, he will have a big day and the Devils will lose once again.
What will happen?
Both teams will come out of the gate fired up. Duke will give a heroic defensive effort initially and will score first. As the emotions of kickoff fade, UNC will control the tempo of the game. Duke seems to allow middling QB to have big games passing the ball. Joe Dailey will have one of his best games of the season throwing, and Ronnie McGill will make the Devils pay for over-pursuit with cutback runs and change of direction. UNC will build a 10-17 point lead into the second half. Duke will hit a late stride on offense and make it close, but will make crucial mistakes down the stretch that will enable the Heels to hold on. As much as it pains me to say it, UNC will hold on to the bell for yet another season and Duke will finish the 2006 campaign winless for the 4th time in a decade.
UNC – 24 Duke - 21