CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The years may be too many to count, but for the first time in recent history, No. 21 North Carolina and Duke both enter their annual rivalry game with more on the line than the Victory Bell.
The bell, which is housed by the victor for the year between games, has been put to use this week at UNC’s practices, taking the place of a standard air horn to signal the end of periods. The tradition of playing for the old railroad train bell began in 1948. You would need to go back nine years earlier to 1939 to find the last time both UNC and Duke were ranked entering their game.
The opportunity to snap that 76-year-old streak came crashing down at Wallace Wade Stadium on Saturday night, due to a last-second Miami kickoff return that featured eight laterals and resulted in a two-game suspension for the entire ACC officiating crew.
Duke’s loss does not change the ramifications for Saturday’s contest at Kenan Stadium. While UNC (7-1, 4-0 ACC) is in sole possession of first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division, the Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1 ACC) control their own destiny for a trip to the conference championship game in Charlotte, N.C. on Dec. 5.
“I think that Duke will be highly motivated to play North Carolina no matter what, and I hope that North Carolina is highly motivated to play Duke no matter what,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “You've got two schools that are 15 miles apart and have had a rivalry over many, many years. I don't know that that is extra incentive for them or not.”
UNC has won 22 of the last 25 meetings, although Duke has won two of the last three.
This rivalry has long been dotted with antics that have infuriated one side or the other. There was Steve Spurrier’s team photo in front of UNC’s scoreboard following a 41-0 win in 1989. There was UNC kicker Dan Orner’s game-winning field goal in 2002, followed by a mad sprint into Duke’s blowup helmet. There was the Shakeel Rashad-Conner Vernon accidental collision in 2012, which prompted both fan bases to accuse the other of foul play.
Most recently, Duke billed UNC roughly $27,000 for paint damage after the Tar Heels celebrated their 45-20 victory last November by spray painting the Victory Bell on the practice field and in the visitor’s locker room.
Those controversial events have added color back to a rivalry that was dormant in appeal for a long time.
“That’s just normal player antics,” Duke linebacker Dwayne Norman said of last season’s paint scandal. “They had just beaten their rival – a good Duke football team – so you can expect some excitement. What happened on the field was embarrassing for us – for the defense to give up so many explosives. We’re definitely going to take that into this Saturday.”
The extracurricular activities that have often overshadowed the relevancy of this rivalry will be secondary on Saturday. The matchup will showcase two of the ACC’s top teams in contention for New Year’s Six bowl games.
Duke’s defense, led by All-ACC safety Jeremy Cash, ranks ninth nationally in total defense (295.0) and 11th in scoring defense (16.1). Quarterback Thomas Sirk (168-of-280 passing, 1,788 yards, 12 TD, 3 INT) has elevated his play in recent weeks – he’s attempted 155 straight passes without an interception – and helped the Blue Devils to top-50 rankings in total offense (420.8, 50th) and scoring offense (32.6, T-47th).
The Tar Heels counter with a more balanced approach, pairing a top-25 offense (469.9 ypg, 36.9 ppg) with a top-15 scoring defense (17.0 ppg).
“This is the best North Carolina team that I’ve seen,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “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.”
A UNC win over its rival would extend its winning streak to eight games, which would tie the school record (’72 & ‘97). More importantly, a victory would effectively give the Tar Heels a two-game lead in the Coastal Division with three to play.