Countdown to Kickoff: Duke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina is playing for bowl eligibility. No. 25 Duke is playing to stay in contention for the ACC Coastal Division title. A rivalry best known for its basketball has serious implications in football on Thursday night (7:30pm/ESPN).

When Larry Fedora arrived in Chapel Hill in December 2011, UNC was in the midst of a five-game losing streak to N.C. State. Fedora promptly reversed that trend against the Wolfpack, although what took its place was a two-game losing streak to Duke. The Tar Heels had won 21 of the previous 22 matchups with the Blue Devils.

“I’ve heard a lot about that,” Fedora told reporters earlier this week. “So we know it’s a big game. I mean, there’s no question. I don’t have to say much about it. The kids know what’s at stake. They know what we have to do. I think they’re excited. I think they’ll be full energy on Thursday.”

Not only can the Tar Heels (5-5, 3-3 ACC) secure bowl eligibility with a victory at Wallace Wade Stadium, but they can also play spoiler in Duke’s attempt to win back-to-back Coastal Division titles. The Blue Devils (8-2, 4-2 ACC) can advance to the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte against Florida State with wins over UNC and Wake Forest to close the regular season.

Duke is looking for its first three-game winning streak over UNC since 1987-89, which means the victory bell has been a darker shade of blue for more than 700 days now.

“We want that bell back real bad, so we plan on getting it,” sophomore wide receiver Mack Hollins said. “… We’re hungry to earn it back for the people that came before us that never had even thought of losing it. We’ve lost it for two years and that hurts us, so we need to get it back.”

That will be a challenge against a Duke team that’s favored by six points over its rivals. The Blue Devils, while not flashy, are solid in key statistical categories. Duke ranks 11th nationally in scoring defense (18.1), T-18th in turnover margin (0.7), 20th in fewest penalty yards per game (40.4) and 26th in red zone offense (88.4).

“Those guys are going to play error-free football,” Fedora said. “They don’t turn the football over. It was uncharacteristic of them this past week (three TOs in loss to Virginia Tech). And they’re very disciplined with penalties. There are not many. Basically what Duke does is wait for you to beat yourself, and that’s what happens quite a bit. They’re a good football team.”

UNC counters with the nation’s 23rd-ranked scoring offense (35.9) and sixth-ranked red zone offense (92.3), led by quarterback Marquise Williams, who ranks 16th nationally in total offense (312.5 ypg).

“He can beat you in a lot of different ways, not just as a runner or designed runs but also running and creating plays,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said of Williams. “He can scramble and throw, scramble and run. He's an accurate passer. I think he's a terrific player, and he's surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.”

Thursday’s game should be competitive, given the recent history of the rivalry. Nine of the last 12 contests have been decided by eight points or less. UNC rallied to take late leads over Duke the past two seasons, only to watch the Blue Devils score in the final minutes to win.

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