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UNC-Duke Preview: Devils Moving Forward

Saturday's UNC-Duke game kicks off at noon on ESPN2.

Series Record: North Carolina leads, 59-38-4

Last Five Games: North Carolina leads, 3-2

Getting To Know Duke

The Blue Devils enter the battle for the Victory Bell still seething from last weekend’s controversial loss to Miami that resulted in suspensions for the ACC officiating crew involved. Head coach David Cutcliffe’s team still controls its own destiny in the Coastal entering November, something that has become a recurring theme for the Blue Devils over the past three seasons.  

Duke has relied on one of the best defenses in the country to post a 6-2 (3-1 ACC) record. The unit ranks ninth nationally in total defense, giving up just 295 yards per game. Duke is also giving up 16.1 points per game, ranking 11th in the nation in scoring defense.

Offensively, the Blue Devils are just above average relative to the rest of the country, averaging 394 yards per game (62nd in the nation) and 32.6 points per game (48th in the nation).  

This is a Duke team that will be playing for its season on Saturday, with more than enough motivation on its side. The Victory Bell, control of its destiny in the Coastal, and revenge for last year’s Thursday night 45-20 beatdown by UNC will all serve to fire up the Blue Devils.  

Offense

The story of Duke’s offense this season has been the evolution of redshirt junior quarterback Thomas Sirk, who became the starter after Anthony Boone graduated following the 2014 season. Two words describe Sirk: Efficient and consistent. Sirk has done a remarkable job of taking care of the ball this season, only throwing three interceptions on 280 attempts. He averages 223.5 passing yards per game (4th in the ACC), while tacking on an additional 60.1 yards per game on the ground (11th in the ACC).

Senior wide receiver Max McCaffrey has established himself as Duke’s No. 1 receiver after the departure of former All-ACC standout Jamison Crowder. McCaffrey leads the team in receptions (34), receiving yards (450) and receiving touchdowns (3). He will face off against a UNC defense that batted down a season-high eight passes in Thursday’s win over Pittsburgh.  

Duke’s offensive line ranks among the best in the country at protecting the quarterback. The Blue Devils have allowed just five sacks all season, ranking them 3rd in the country and 1st in the ACC. The line is also one of the better units at run blocking, allowing backs to churn out 4.34 yards per rush (5th in the ACC).

While Sirk contributes most of Duke’s rushing game, the Blue Devils have several options to utilize in the backfield. Senior running back Shaquille Powell has taken the majority of non-Sirk carries on the team and averages 4.1 yards per carry. Powell’s biggest strength is his ability to cut on a dime, allowing him to change directions and force tacklers to miss. Sophomore running back Shaun Wilson joins Powell in the backfield, but has seen his playing time diminish as Duke plays tougher competition.

Defense

Duke will be a unique challenge in that it plays a 4-2-5 defensive scheme with a new “Devil” position that’s similar to the “Bandit” role that former UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning used in Chapel Hill.

Duke’s defense, as a whole, is one of the best in the country, and a large portion of the credit is due to fifth-year senior safety Jeremy Cash. Cash, an All-ACC and All-American player, is a versatile defender who UNC will have to locate on every inch of the field. The Miami, Fla. native has 70 tackles (15.5 for a loss), three forced fumbles, eight hurries, and three pass break-ups on the season. He plays close to the line of scrimmage, can penetrate into the backfield, and will likely be the toughest individual defensive challenge the Tar Heels face all season.

Senior linebacker Dwayne Norman is another player to watch. He leads the team with 72 tackles after transitioning from safety to linebacker this offseason. Norman is a capable pass-rusher off the edge, and presents another defender that the Tar Heels will have to pick up on blitzes.

If Duke’s defense has one weakness, it’s converting on quarterback pressure. The Blue Devils have tallied 15 sacks, 75th in the nation. They’ve hurried the quarterback 27 times, but still struggle to finish bringing the quarterback down. This could pose problems for Duke, considering the Tar Heels’ pass-blocking abilities.

Notable Quotes

“It’s important. It’s a rivalry game, you know? It’s a cross-town rival, 10 miles away from us. They’re in our division, and they’re in the state, to be Coastal Division champs, state champs, and for how it affects recruiting, it’s very important to us in the state. Very important.” – UNC head coach Larry Fedora

“This is the best North Carolina team that I’ve seen. They are extremely balanced as a team. They have such weapons in the kicking game, on defense and on offense. Their offense has playmakers everywhere – including the offensive line.” –Cutcliffe

Matchup To Watch

UNC’s defensive line vs. Duke’s offensive line
 As already mentioned, Duke boasts one of the best pass-protecting offensive lines in the country. Through eight games, they’ve only allowed five sacks. That lack of pressure has allowed Sirk to throw the ball efficiently and minimize mistakes, keeping the ball out of opposing teams’ hands.

UNC’s defensive weakness – which speaks more to the strengths of the back seven - is winning in the trenches. The Tar Heels have recorded 11 sacks on the season. A positive sign for UNC is that they recorded a season-high five sacks in Thursday’s win against Pitt, nearly doubling the season total.  

This game will be the watermark for a defensive line that has steadily improved at mastering the transition rush, which is football talk for playing the run and adjusting to pass rush. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has added more blitzes to his calls as his defenders have earned his trust, and the likely return of starting defensive tackle Nazair Jones should help solidify UNC’s defensive front.


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