Series Record: UNC leads 59-38-4
Last Five Games: UNC leads 3-2
Getting to know the Blue Devils
The Blue Devils (3-6, 0-5 ACC) enter the battle for the Victory Bell as the only winless team left in the ACC. With few positives left to be taken from this season, Duke will look to upset their archrivals on Thursday night when the Tar Heels travel to Wallace Wade Stadium. While the Blue Devils are three games below .500, their largest point differential in their six losses is fourteen points.
Both sides of the ball have taken major steps back for coach David Cutcliffe’s team in 2016, especially the defense. Last year the Blue Devils had one of the best defenses in the ACC, and college football as a whole, but this season hasn’t worked out so well. The Blue Devils rank 57th in the country in total defense and their inability to stop fellow ACC opponents has led to their winless record.
Cutcliffe turned Duke’s offense over to redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones after losing starter Thomas Sirk (Achilles) for the season in training camp. The results have been mixed, as Jones has had his own struggles through the air – he ranks 10th in the ACC in quarterback rating at 125.1.
As a freshman, Jones’s inconsistencies when throwing are expected. It seems like any throw of his that is on the money is then followed up by a throw too short or thrown into traffic. Passes into traffic have been the main reason for Jones’s nine interceptions on the season – third-highest in the ACC.
Jones has been increasingly effective on the ground. At 6-foot-5, 210 pounds Jones is a bit underweight for someone of his size, although it doesn’t show when the quarterback makes first contact on a run. He’s one of the strongest quarterbacks in the conference and has rushed for five touchdowns and almost 400 yards this season. Duke suffered another key offensive injury when top rusher Jela Duncan ruptured his Achilles against Georgia Tech on Oct. 29.
Running back Shaun Wilson (449 yards, 3 TD), who shared carries with Duncan before his injury, has taken over the bulk of the snaps in the offensive backfield. The junior rushed for over 100 yards against Georgia Tech two weeks ago and recorded 76 yards and a touchdown in Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech last week.
The Blue Devils rank 74th nationally in total offense (398.9 ypg) and 93rd in scoring offense (24.1).
Sophomore linebacker Ben Humphreys has been the shining light in Duke’s defense this season. In his first season starting at middle linebacker, Humphreys has shown that he can do just about anything that defensive coordinator Jim Knowles asks of him – the Newport Beach native has 66 tackles (8.5 for loss), 2.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and two recoveries.
Where Duke has thrived this season is getting to the ball behind the line of scrimmage. The Blue Devils have recorded 66 tackles for loss this season, which is 21st nationally. The team leader in tackles for losses is senior safety Corbin McCarthy with 10.5. McCarthy uses his combination of athleticism and agility well enough to give Knowles the confidence to blitz him off the edge constantly.
A big problem for Duke’s defense this season has been the art of actually tackling the ball carrier on first contact. In last week’s game, Virginia Tech thrived off yards after contact, which ended up winning the Hokies the game. The Blue Devils failed to wrap up the ball carrier twice at critical junctures, leading to a touchdown and a game-sealing fourth down conversion.
Duke ranks 57th nationally in total defense (393.8 ypg) and 39th in scoring defense (23.9).
“He’s just poised, knowledgeable, accurate, really accurate with the football, quick, strong, he keeps his eyes downfield. He manages every aspect of their game. There’s not a throw he can’t make – he’s great with touch throws, he’s great with deep throws. He’s a big, strong, good athlete. He’s well prepared as a quarterback, he’s a really good player.” – Cutcliffe on UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky
“We always study third downs. When you get to the point where you have opportunities for stops, that’s critically important. Now here’s the secret, though. If you get too big a hurry to third down they’re all going to be 3rd-and-shorts. If you don’t play well on first and second down and even worse is 1st-and-10 turns into 1st-and-10 and etc. So it all comes in increments. But yes, you have to be really good on third down against this team.” – Cutcliffe on preparing his defense to face UNC’s offense on third down
Matchup to Watch
Duke’s Daniel Jones vs. UNC’s Cornerbacks
Jones has shown that he is prone to some poor decision-making and UNC’s cornerbacks couldn’t be hungrier for an interception. It seems like the perfect matchup for the Tar Heels. When pressured, Jones opts to try to fit his passes into small holes instead of throwing the ball away, a fault that junior cornerback M.J. Stewart and senior cornerback Des Lawrence will try to exploit. Both are looking for their first interceptions of the season (and the team’s as a whole) and will play tight against the Blue Devil’s receivers. If Jones opts to run to the edges, which he often does, Stewart and Lawrence will be responsible for taking the big man down to prevent a breakout play.