CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 15 North Carolina travels the eight-mile stretch of U.S. 15-501 across county lines for the 103rd playing of its rivalry with Duke at Wallace Wade Stadium on Thursday night.
The Tar Heels, who are seeking their third-straight victory over the Blue Devils and their 24th in 27 meetings, need a win to stay in the ACC Coastal Division race. UNC (7-2, 5-1 ACC) is tied with Virginia Tech in the division standings, although the Hokies own the tiebreaker due to their 34-3 win at Kenan Stadium on Oct. 8.
The Tar Heels have been vocal about needing help in the form of a Georgia Tech or Virginia upset of Virginia Tech in the final weeks of the regular season to set up a rematch with Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.
“Any time it’s brought up, all I do is say, ‘hey guys, all we can do is handle what we can take care of,’” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said on Wednesday. “And so we need to make sure we take care of this game that we’ve been focused on this week. We can’t worry about the rest of it. It’s out of our control, and whatever happens will happen. That’s just the way the game is. You don’t get any do-overs.”
Duke (3-6, 0-5 ACC) remains in search of its first ACC win in a season that opened with little optimism before injury attrition at key positions mounted. Despite the conference losing streak, the Blue Devils have remained competitive, dropping its last three contests by a combined 16 points.
One of those losses came at No. 5 Louisville, a game in which Duke lost 24-14. The Blue Devils held the Cardinals to a season-low point total and Heisman Trophy frontrunner Lamar Jackson to a season-low 181 passing yards.
Louisville leads the ACC in yards per play (7.8), thanks largely to Jackson’s playmaking ability. UNC is second in the conference that stat (6.8), although the Tar Heels’ ability to spread the ball around and inflict damage either on the ground or through the air concerns Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.
“People know a lot of Louisville’s offense goes around Lamar Jackson and the different things he does,” Cutcliffe said. “North Carolina’s balance to their attack might be more difficult to defend.”
Junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky has shot up the mock draft rankings while completing 70.3 percent of his passes for 2,707 yards and 19 touchdowns against two interceptions. UNC’s offense has taken another step forward with the return of Elijah Hood to full health. The junior running back, who suffered a concussion at Florida State, has churned out 275 yards and four touchdowns at a 9.8 yards-per-rush clip in his last two outings.
“He brings a whole other dimension that we were missing,” Fedora said. “He’s probably as close to 100 percent as he was back in training camp.”
Duke ranks 74th nationally in run defense (177.4), so the likelihood of Hood and senior back T.J. Logan (506 yards, 7 TD) establishing a balanced attack appears high. A Tar Heel has rushed for 100 yards or more in nine of its last 11 meetings with Duke.
The Blue Devils will rely on their rushing attack to spring the upset. After posting middling statistics through its first seven games, Duke has found traction on the ground in recent weeks, totaling 481 yards and six touchdowns in its past two games. UNC ranks 104th nationally in run defense (217.3 ypg), although Gene Chizik's unit is allowing just 4.3 rushing yards per play in ACC games.
Possibly the most intriguing aspect of Thursday’s primetime matchup is what will happen in the moments following the game, provided the Tar Heels secure their 62nd victory in the series. UNC unveiled a revamped bipartisan Victory Bell - half UNC blue, half Duke blue - this week to a storm of criticism from both players and fans.
Athletic director Bubba Cunningham reversed his original decision to not allow the bell stand to be painted following the game on Wednesday afternoon.
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