Give David Cutcliffe credit for reenergizing a once respectable football program and making it competitive enough to win nine combined games in his first two seasons ('08, ‘09). But that initial bump in production has fallen back to cellar-dwelling levels and Duke finds itself one loss away from matching last season's 3-9 (1-7 ACC) record. Cutcliffe's ability to develop quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Thaddeus Lewis – is well-documented and Sean Renfree is just the next in line to put up impressive numbers in his offensive system. But Duke's passing game (271.0 yards per game, 28th nationally) is the lone highlight on either side of the ball.
The Blue Devils rank 10th or worse in the ACC in 10 statistical categories, including scoring offense (22.6 ppg, 10th), total defense (417.9 ypg, 11th) and scoring defense (30.6 ppg, 11th). Preseason hopes for a bowl bid took a fatal hit in the season opener as Duke lost to FCS opponent Richmond for the third time in six seasons. After a blowout 44-14 loss to Stanford, the Blue Devils won three straight over Boston College, Tulane and Florida International before a six-game losing streak put them at 3-8 heading into their season finale against the Tar Heels.
"They've been good enough to beat us. We haven't been good enough to beat them." – Cutcliffe on losing seven straight to UNC
"Nobody on this team has ever beaten Carolina, Winning this game means a lot to the guys in the senior class. It means a lot to the underclassmen too." – Duke senior tight end Danny Parker
Matchups to Watch
Duke's Sean Renfree vs. UNC's Pass Defense
Quarterback Sean Renfree (269-of-414 passing, 2,738 yards, 12 TD, 10 INT) has wasted little time in climbing the Duke record books in just his second season as a starter. The red-shirt junior is currently the career completion percentage leader (63.4) and ranks fifth in both career pass completions (588) and career passing yards (6,199). He set a single-game record for completions in the win over Boston College with a 41-of-53 passing performance for 368 yards and two touchdowns.
Renfree has directed a passing attack that is averaging 271.0 yards per game with quick passes – 6.6 yards per attempt – to a variety of players. Nine different Blue Devils have caught at least eight passes this season. Junior wide receiver Conner Vernon leads that group with 68 receptions for 939 yards and six touchdowns, while senior wideout Donovan Varner has hauled in 53 catches for 676 yards and two touchdowns.
"The quarterback is one of the best in this conference, I think, for what they ask him to do," UNC head coach Everett Withers said. "They've got two really talented receivers that I think do a great job of getting in their routes and knowing where to be."
Duke's passing game statistics would likely have provided plenty of reason for concern one month ago for the Tar Heels. UNC's first seven FBS opponents averaged 279.3 passing yards per game and tossed 15 touchdown passes.
But North Carolina's secondary has finally stabilized after a plethora of early season injuries. Safety Jon Smith is healthy after an ankle sprain and freshman Tim Scott has moved into the starting cornerback roll opposite senior Charles Brown. As a result, UNC's last three opponents have only averaged 189.7 yards through the air with three combined passing touchdowns.
The secondary has played as a more cohesive group without a significant increase in pressure from its front seven (five sacks in last three games), but UNC's talent up front still warrants plenty of attention from the Duke coaching staff.
"Their front seven are incredibly big, strong, and fast," Cutcliffe said. "Having any chance to control that is always very difficult. As an offensive coach that's where it all begins for you, and they're very, very talented."
UNC's Special Teams vs. Duke's Special Teams
In order for Duke to upset North Carolina for just the second time in 22 years, the Blue Devils have to win at least one phase of the game and be competitive in the other two. On paper, the most likely phase is special teams.
The Blue Devils lead the ACC in kickoff return yardage defense (16.79) and rank second in net punting (37.1), fifth in punt returns (8.41), seventh in kickoff returns (20.8) and ninth in punt return yardage defense (7.94).
Freshman kick returner Jamison Crowder is fifth in the ACC in return average (21.8) and punter Alex King ranks fourth in the conference with a 41.9 yards-per-punt average, but placekicker Will Snyderwine has struggled in missing nine of his 17 field goal attempts this season.
North Carolina's special teams woes having been glaring in recent weeks, especially in the punting category. Withers has switched back and forth between Thomas Hibbard, who had one punt blocked and another tipped against Wake Forest, and C.J. Feagles, who delivered kicks of 23, 25 and 27 yards in the first half against N.C. State.
In UNC's last three games, its average starting field position has been just shy of the 29-yard-line, while its opponents have started just beyond the 37. That's almost a first down's worth of yardage on every alternating series.
"I think [field position] has got a lot to do with where you start and where you finish drives," Withers said. "We've got to get more yards in those drives and keep the ball longer and then we do have to kick and win the effective field position. We haven't done that the last few weeks."
North Carolina ranks 10th in the ACC in net punting (35.3) and 11th in punt returns (4.4), but freshman T.J. Thorpe does lead the league in kickoff return average (27.6).
Speaking of random special teams tidbits, Duke has recovered seven of 11 on-side kick attempts over the past two seasons.