Overall North Carolina leads the all-time series with Duke by a margin of 55-35-4. However the Blue Devils own a winning record in games played in Durham by a 27-16-2 margin.
Coach David Cutcliffe's program enters the game having pushed traditional conference power Virginia Tech to the limit on the heels of a great defensive effort that would have required just an average offensive showing to earn the W. On the other side the Tar Heels will enter Saturday's match-up fresh from being stomped by rival NC State by a 41-10 score. Should the Blue Devils earn the victory Saturday it would be the most wins the team has put up since the mid 1990s, while being the first time North Carolina would have dropped three straight games to finish a season since 2001.
When North Carolina Has The Ball:
Throughout the season North Carolina has proved capable when it comes to putting points on the board. Head coach Butch Davis' team enters the regular season finale averaging 27.5 points per game while ranking in the top half of the conference in both rushing and passing offense. Perhaps the biggest question from an offensive standpoint has been the inconsistency at quarterback due in large part to T.J. Yates' broken ankle which kept him out for six starts. During Yates' absence the Tar Heels turned to Cameron Sexton for four starts, but with Yates returning to action last week and being named as Saturday's starter by Davis, it would appears as Sexton will see spot duty only.
Even without a steady influence under center, the Tar Heel passing game has been formidable this season thanks to the brilliance of junior Hakeem Nicks who ranks first in the league in receiving yards per game (87.9/game); second in receptions per game (5.2); and fifth in total yards per contest (103.2). All told Nicks has accounted for 57 receptions and 967 yards for eight scores - including a remarkable four against Boston Colllege in UNC's 45-24 win over the Eagles. On the ground Nicks has added another score via a reverse and 34 more yards on five carries. If he can post 33 additional yards against Duke, Nicks will become the first UNC player in history to log a 1,000 yard season.
Nicks' emergence as the go-to receiver couldn't have come at a better time for North Carolina after senior Brandon Tate was lost for the season against Notre Dame with a knee injury. Tate is the NCAA's all-time leader in combined kick return yards with 3,523 yards and was leading the ACC in total yardage per game with 163.7 at the time of his injury.
On the ground the Heels will turn to sophomore Shaun Draughn - a converted three star safety from his high school days - who had a career afternoon in the Heels' overtime loss to Virginia when he rushed for a career high 138 yards - not bad when you consider it was the third year player's first career start. For the season he ranks ninth in the league with an average of 62.8 yards per game on the ground having rushed 152 times for 691 yards (4.5 ypc). Around the goal line North Carolina will likely relieve Draughn in favor of fullback Ryan Houston, a 6-2, 245lbs bruiser who has a team best eight scores on the season - with none of those being longer than a five yard run.
Meanwhile Cutcliffe's staff will look to get a similar performance to last week's effort against the Hokies that saw the Blue Devils force five turnovers while limiting the explosive Tech offense to just one scoring drive all evening. Senior captain, and ACC Defensive Player of the Year hopeful Mike Tauiliili will close out his career looking to cement a second season as the conference's leading tackler. Currently he is averaging just under 11 tackles per game. The Blue Devils will look to keep the pressure on Yates and the Tar Heel offense which coughed up a remarkable six turnovers last weekend against the Wolfpack.
When Duke Has The Ball:
Much has been made of the Blue Devils' inability to find an offensive attack last weekend. While the game plan certainly worked and Duke was in a position to win the game on the team's final possession, the absence of injured third year starter Thaddeus was just too much to overcome as backup Zack Asack went just 2-of-9 with four interceptions. Lewis is expected to play on Saturday, though he will likely still be nursing an injury sustained in Duke's 31-7 loss against Clemson.
Against the Tar Heels, Duke will face one of the more talented lines they've seen this season led by Marvin Austin - the nation's top rated defensive tackle from the class of 2007. Austin and junior Cam Thomas control the middle of the line while defensive ends E.J. Wilson and Robert Quinn come off the sides.
At linebacker the Heels are extremely athletic with the trio of Quan Sturdivant, Mark Paschal and Bruce Carter combining for 256 tackles between them. While Sturdivant and Paschal are two of the ACC's top tacklers, Carter has made a name for himself in another area -- blocking kicks. On the season he has blocked a remarkable five kicks while adding in 55 stops and a team best nine tackles for loss.
The defensive backfield will start an experience group with Jordan Hemby and Kendric Burney on the corners and Trimane Goddard and Deunta Williams as the safeties. Goddard ranks sixth in the ACC with an average of 0.91 passes defender per game which correlates to sitting tied atop the league with six interceptions in 11 games this season.
For 25 Duke seniors this will be the final time walking onto the field at Wallace Wade and the last time wearing the uniform. A season ago the team should have come away with a victory over the Tar Heels, but for a few mental lapses. That's been a common theme over the last four or five years. A missed assignment here. A botched execution there. When they arrived on campus this group was hoping to be the key to a turnaround under the head coach Ted Roof. And while they won't have achieved their goal of getting the program to a bowl game, these 25 seniors will, as Citcliffe told the media this week, be leaving the Duke program on the brink of those goals - something that even the most ardent Duke supporter didn't think likely as recently as a year ago. It would be fitting for this group to go out with a victory.
If the Blue Devils get the same kind of effort on defense as they did a week ago, and if Lewis returns to the field at a passable level, then Duke can pull the upset; win the bell; and send those 25 players off in style.
Predicted Final Score:
Duke - 22
North Carolina - 20