There were no thoughts during the summer that the 2010 season would be an easy one around Durham. Not only were the Blue Devils faced with unenviable task of replacing two-time All-ACC quarterback Thad Lewis, but the schedule was brutal – defending national champion Alabama, four Coastal Division rivals all ranked in the top-25 and eight teams on the slate that had won eight or more games in '09. But other than blowouts to the Tide (62-13) and Virginia Tech (44-7), head coach David Cutcliffe's squad has been competitive in every other game en route to a 3-8 (1-6 ACC) record. Turnovers have been the difference in a number of Duke's losses, ranking 11th in the ACC and T-107th nationally in turnovers lost (26), while not doing much better in forcing turnovers (17 - 10th ACC, T-71st nationally).
As usual under Cutcliffe's direction, the Blue Devils' offense has attempted to balance the struggles of the other two phases of the game. Duke ranks 53rd nationally in total offense (391.0 ypg) and 74th in scoring offense (25.8 ppg) behind the efforts of red-shirt sophomore Sean Renfree (261-of-425 passing, 2.889 yards, 13 TD, 15 INT). The defense has struggled after losing three of its top five tacklers from a year ago, ranking 111th in total defense (443.8 ypg) and 109th in scoring defense (36.5 ppg). Special teams hasn't faired much better as Duke is losing valuable field position in net punting (108th, 33.4 ypk) and kickoff returns (86th, 20.6 ypr).
"I was asked earlier today by someone, ‘How do you measure where you've improved?' It's not about statistics. We have some decent, solid statistics, but I really don't pay a lot of attention to statistics so it's in our consistency playing good football." – Cutcliffe
"The opportunity of never having rung the bell is definitely something that has stuck with me." – Duke senior linebacker Abraham Kromah
Matchups to Watch
Duke's Sean Renfree vs. UNC's Pass Defense
Cutcliffe's resume with regard to quarterback development is nothing short of phenomenal. Under his tutelage, Heath Shuler, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning were all Heisman Trophy finalists and Thad Lewis became the first Duke quarterback to earn All-ACC honors in consecutive seasons. But after plenty of preseason hype, it appeared early in the season as though Renfree was going to fall far short of that quarterback legacy.
Against his first five FBS opponents, Renfree nearly doubled his touchdown passes (8) with interceptions (14), while four of those scoring strikes occurred in the loss to lowly Wake Forest on Sept. 11.
But during Duke's weekly press conference on Tuesday, Cutcliffe attributed those early troubles to lingering knee problems dating back to ACL surgery following the '09 season.
"He had pretty severe knee issues, which created some arm issues," Cutcliffe said. "We had some serious concern about his arm as the mid-season went on. I hadn't announced it then, because it's not the thing to do. He'll be mad at me, because it sounds like an excuse.
"I was really concerned for him, but he is a tough individual and pushed through it. When you're inside a year (into recovery) with an ACL, they can swell and you can get tendinitis."
Things began to turn around against Navy on Oct. 30. Since that 34-31 victory, Renfree has completed 74 percent (110-of-149) of his passes for 1,152 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. As a result, Duke defeated Navy and Virginia, lost by five to Boston College and led Georgia Tech 13-6 at halftime before the Yellow Jackets rallied last Saturday.
North Carolina will attempt to contain Renfree with a secondary that has taken its bumps and bruises over the past five weeks. The Tar Heels ranked 18th nationally in pass efficiency defense (107.3) heading into the Miami game on Oct. 23, but that statistic has fallen with each passing week as UNC now stands 49th nationally (122.1).
The reason? North Carolina has allowed 12 touchdowns through the air against just three interceptions during that stretch.
UNC's T.J. Yates vs. Duke's Pass Defense
As Yates enters the final regular season game of his career, it would be harshly understated to call his journey a mere roller coaster ride. But there's no doubt his senior year at North Carolina has been special, completing 231 of 348 passes for 2,920 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
The Marietta, Ga. native boasts a long list of school records, including career passing yards,career completions and career attempts. His strong performance against N.C. State last weekend – 33-of-44 passing, 411 yards, two touchdowns – added the single-game completions record to his resume and set him up to break Darian Durant's single-season completion record (234) with four hookups against Duke. Yates needs 121 passing yards to become the first Tar Heel to eclipse the 9,000 career yardage barrier and move into the ACC's top-10 in career passing yards.
After a tumultous junior campaign, Yates has rebounded in a way that few expected. On Tuesday, Cutcliffe pointed to Yates's long road as the foundation for his success in ‘10.
"Experience is a great teacher," Cutcliffe said. "They've done a great job with him. They have a tremendous offensive system. He understands it; he gets the ball out quickly."
Yates would appear to be set up well for a spectacular finale against a Duke defense that ranks 106th nationally in pass efficiency defense (148.6) and 94th in pass defense (239.8 ypg). But after giving up seven sacks to N.C. State last Saturday, the Tar Heels now ranks 109th nationally in sacks allowed (3.00 per game). That alone is reason for concern for the boys in Carolina blue.
"They are similar schematically and philosophy wise to the team we just played," UNC head coach Butch Davis said on Monday. "A lot of fire zone and zone blitzes. They bring a lot of pressure and try to create negative plays for your offense. This is something we have to do a better job of pass protection and identifying where the pressure is coming from. We have to keep T.J. Yates a lot cleaner than we did last week."