Countdown to Kickoff: Duke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina closes out the 2011 regular season schedule on Senior Day as the Duke Blue Devils make the eight-mile trek down U.S. 15-501 for a 3:30pm kickoff (RSN) on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.

The Tar Heels (6-5, 2-5 ACC) have won 20 of the last 21 games against their rivals from Durham, including seven straight. UNC is expected to extend that streak to eight straight as Vegas has the boys in Carolina blue pegged as 13-point favorites.

If recent history is any indication, that point spread may be difficult to reach. Seven of the last nine games played between these two programs have been decided by eight points or less, including UNC's hard-fought 24-19 victory last season at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Saturday's game marks the final home game for 16 Tar Heel seniors. Fullback Devon Ramsay will also be honored prior to kickoff, but the fifth-year senior is hoping to earn a sixth year of eligibility after tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee in the season opener against James Madison. The NCAA declared Ramsay permanently ineligible and forced the Red Bank, N.J. native to sit out the final nine games of the 2010 season before reversing its decision and announcing that no violation had occurred in February.

UNC's senior class has endured two seasons of intense criticism and scrutiny in the wake of the NCAA investigation, but deserve credit for sticking together and winning 14 games – thus far – during that timeframe.

"This [group] will have gone to four straight bowl games," UNC interim head coach Everett Withers said. "That' pretty impressive. That hasn't been done around at Carolina since the early-to-late ‘90s, so they've accomplished a lot… This class has got a lot to be proud of."

It's possible that Saturday also represents Withers's final game at Kenan Stadium. His interim contract runs through Dec. 31, 2011, although new UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham told Inside Carolina earlier this week that Withers is a candidate for the permanent head coaching position.

The Charlotte, N.C. native told reporters earlier this week that he hasn't thought about his future job status "one bit."

"When I first stood up here in August, my only concern was trying to help these kids have the best experience that they can have," Withers said.

North Carolina will attempt to reverse a late-season slide on Saturday after dropping four of its last five games. The Blue Devils (3-8, 1-6 ACC) have been even worse during the stretch run, losing six straight. Both teams have been plagued with inconsistent play throughout the course of the season.

"Our margin for error is not very big," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "The biggest issue is just spurts of bad plays. Giving up explosives on defense, and basically stopping ourselves and not producing in the red zone on offense would be the constant theme."

It's been 18 years since Duke posted a winning record and the Tar Heels want to avoid giving the Blue Devils any reason for celebration over this holiday weekend.

"We don't want to say that we lost to Duke," senior cornerback Charles Brown said. "Nothing against Duke, but that's just how it is. You don't want to lose to Duke, especially going to UNC. We want to make sure we get this win."

North Carolina will counter Duke's aerial assault with a balanced offensive attack, as evidenced by having 1,000-yard rusher (Gio Bernard) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Dwight Jones) on the same team for the first time in school history. Bernard (1,057 rushing yards, 12 rushing TD) suffered a mild concussion against Virginia Tech on Nov. 17, but was cleared for full contact on Monday.

Withers told reporters on Wednesday that he expects Bernard "to be ready to go" against Duke.

Duke safety Matt Daniels has called on his teammates to match UNC's physicality up front in order to stop the run.

"It seems like that's what they do - just big-boy us, run right at us," Daniels said. "Two years ago, they probably ran the ball like 43 times. From watching film from last year, they ran the same play on us like 29 times - it was a running play, a power action."

While Renfree has called Saturday's game his team's "Super Bowl," North Carolina will be playing to improve its bowl destination, although N.C. State will have a say in that process.

A Wolfpack loss to Maryland on Saturday guarantees that UNC will play in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La. on Dec. 26. A Wolfpack win and a UNC loss guarantees that the Tar Heels will play in the Military Bowl on Dec. 28.

If both teams win, North Carolina could still fall to the Military Bowl if N.C. State is picked ahead of any of the three current ACC schools with 5-3 conference records as the Tar Heels could not move ahead of those teams due to the league's "one-win" rule.

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