The Blue Devils lost a tough 17-16 decision to Virginia Tech last Saturday, which makes their rivalry showdown with UNC a must-win in their attempt to win the Coastal Division title for the second straight season. Even with the loss to the Hokies, head coach David Cutcliffe’s team managed to stay in the AP Top-25, which speaks to its 8-2 (4-2 ACC) record. The path to Charlotte for the ACC title game for Duke is as straightforward as it gets. If the Blue Devils beat North Carolina and woeful Wake Forest in the final two weeks of the regular season, then they will return to the ACC Championship Game due to their victory over Georgia Tech (9-2, 6-2 ACC). Last season, Duke locked up the division and a trip to Charlotte with a late game-winning field goal over UNC. While UNC is out of the running for the division title, the Heels are still in contention for a bowl bid as they look to play spoiler on the road at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke is another ACC Coastal Division team that can run the football. The Blue Devils rank fifth in the league with an average of 193.7 yards per game on the ground. Those numbers are somewhat perplexing considering that the backfield does not boast a rusher that ranks in the top-10 statistically in rushing yards. Instead of relying on one player, Cutcliffe has relied on a running back by committee approach that has produced four rushers that have gained 350-plus yards. For Duke, success in the passing game has been a little bit harder to come by. Quarterback Anthony Boone has thrown just 14 touchdown passes in 10 games. What’s more, the redshirt senior has completed just 56.7 percent of his passes. The one thing you could point to as a strength of this offense is that Boone has only thrown six interceptions. As a team Duke is tied for second in the league for turnover margin (0.7).
Defensively, this is a unit that, like North Carolina, has difficulty stopping the run. Duke has the second-worst run defense in the ACC, as it has surrendered 197.6 yards per game (which is still 30-plus yards better than the Tar Heels’ average). As a team, Duke has given up the second-most yards on average to opposing offenses (389.7 per game). That number also is better than UNC (the worst defensive yardage team in the ACC) by a significant margin (UNC has allowed opponents to average 511.6 yards of total offense per game). The key difference between these two defenses is that where North Carolina ranks last in scoring defense (41.2), the Blue Devils unit ranks second in the league with an average of 18.1 points per game. The secondary has also been terrific against the pass, ranking second in the ACC in pass defense efficiency, and fifth in the league in opponent’s third down conversion rate (35.3).
"The mentality of our team right now is, 'Oh, yes, we lost a couple of days ago, but we're still in the driver's seat to go to the ACC championship.’ We still control our fate." Duke offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson
"The talk is just, 'Hey, let's go out there and be who we are and do what we do.’ There's not much more that you can really say. There's not magic words that will automatically make it happen. We all understand what it takes first to win games, but you've got to go back to doing that. That's all it is." – Duke quarterback Anthony Boone
UNC’s Running Backs vs. Duke’s Run Defense
The belief here is that Duke’s defense is going to make a concentrated effort to try and bottle up UNC quarterback Marquise Williams by any means necessary, given how well the junior has run throughout the season. Williams has also absorbed plenty of punishing blows, which can be minimized with help in the ground game by Logan. Between the season-ending injury to sophomore Khris Francis and the uncertainty surrounding the health of freshman Elijah Hood, Logan is going to need to turn in his second straight strong performance (he had 93 yards on 18 carries and one score against Pitt). The return of Romar Morris from a one-game suspension should also bolster a backfield that has taken a lot of hits this season. If Logan (and Morris), can’t step up against Duke’s subpar run defense, then this North Carolina offense may have to rely on its explosive plays yet again to stay close.
UNC’s Secondary vs. Duke WR Jamison Crowder
Many might point to Duke’s balanced rushing attack as the most significant concern for UNC heading into this game, but Crowder actually might be able to do more damage. At 5-foot-9, Crowder isn’t all that physically imposing, but he does have deceptive breakaway speed that allows him to bust plays loose in open space. Whether it’s running backs or wide receivers, this North Carolina defense has struggled to contain the best offensive threat on opposing offenses. Last week, Pitt’s only dangerous wide receiver was Tyler Boyd, who torched the UNC secondary for 160 yards and a score. This week, the Tar Heels will have to match up with another one of the ACC’s best pass catchers. Crowder is second in the ACC in receptions (64) and fourth in receiving yards (767). The senior is also third in the conference in punt return average (9.1 yards per return), and is tied for the league lead in punt returns for touchdowns (1). If UNC can bottle up Crowder, then it should be able to limit the big plays that have been killing them in recent weeks.
UNC Playing Spoiler Role vs. Duke
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