The Blue Devils (4-7, 1-6 ACC) enter their home finale at Wallace Wade Stadium with a four-game losing streak after starting their first season under new head coach David Cutcliffe with a 3-1 record by defeating James Madison, Navy and Virginia at home. The ACC schedule has not been kind to the Blue Devils since that victory over the Cavaliers, losing seven straight with a win over Vanderbilt sandwiched in between. Regardless, Cutcliffe has re-energized the Duke football program and its shown on the field as the Blue Devils are no longer the doormats of the BCS. Once an easy win for most opponents, Duke has proven time and time again this season that it is capable of winning on any given Saturday.
"I have never been around a more unselfish team; a team that plays any harder than this team does, really unselfish, no finger pointing, nobody blaming anybody, 100 percent together." – Cutcliffe
"We've taken care of the football, we've played very good on defense not giving up big plays, and this is a big challenge because I will tell you this is a very, very dramatically improved Duke football team. Their defense, especially the front seven, secondary is very good, but the front seven, their linebackers are lightening fast, they run, they fill, they make plays." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
Blue Devil Spotlight
Even if you following ACC recruiting closely, it's unlikely that you ever heard about Houston, Tex. native Michael Tauiliili way back in 2005, and for good reason – at that time, the senior linebacker was still using his birth name, Brown.
But there's little doubt that you've heard Tauiliili's name recently, as he is on track to earn All-America honors after a stellar senior campaign in Durham. Cutcliffe has called his co-captain the "best defensive football player in the ACC."
The 5-foot-11, 235-pounder leads the ACC with 120 tackles, and has recorded 10.5 for a loss, 0.5 sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. The senior has reached the double-digit mark in tackles for loss for the fourth straight season, highlighting his consistency since stepping on the Duke campus in 2005. He has led the Blue Devils in tackles in all four years, earning first-team Freshman All America honors and bookending that award with preseason All-ACC honors in 2008.
Tauiliili has been instrumental in directing Duke's defensive turnaround, cutting its scoring defense by nearly 10 points from 2007. Sports Illustrated tabbed him as a member of its 2008 Mid-Season 2nd Team All-America squad, and the Walter Camp Foundation named him as its National Defensive Player of the Week selection for his 16-tackle, one interception performance against Virginia on Sept. 27.
"I have seen everybody to this point and there is not another one like him," Cutcliffe said. "He continues to play at a high level every single snap. He is a great leader off the field. His practice habits are perfect. Whether it is intercepting passes, recovering fumbles, causing fumbles, making tackles that no one else is going to make, he is all over the field."
Matchups to Watch
Duke's Quarterbacks vs. UNC's Defense
North Carolina's defense has benefitted from a lackluster crop of opposing quarterbacks on its schedule, having to face just two high-level signal callers in Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen and N.C. State's Russell Wilson. The trouble is that both of those quarterbacks lit the Tar Heels up, combining for 662 yards on 48-of-76 passing (63.2 percent) for four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Things could get tougher for North Carolina, in that Duke's Thaddeus Lewis is arguably the top passer in the ACC. The junior ranks fifth all-time in Blue Devil history with 6,185 yards of total offense, and has completed 61.1 percent of his passes (190-of-311) this season for 1,893 yards, 14 TD and 5 INT. His 123.86 pass efficiency rating currently resides in the No. 4 spot in the ACC statistics book.
But Lewis suffered a foot injury in the first quarter of Duke's loss to Clemson two weeks ago, and his return for Saturday's season finale is currently up in the air.
His backup, former starter Zack Asack (162 yards, 2 TD, 6 INT), has struggled throwing the ball in place of Lewis, but his 172 rushing yards in limited action has provided the Blue Devils with a different look on offense.
"Last week's game without Thaddeus Lewis was a little bit difference, in that [with] Asack, they didn't attempt to throw the football as much as they had maybe in previous games, but they gave Virginia Tech a lot of fits with a lot of the read option and the triple option," Davis said. "They sprung some new formations on Virginia Tech that really enhanced their ability to run the football."
The UNC head coach told reporters on Monday that his squad would prepare for both quarterbacks this week during practice, increasing the work load for the players as the two quarterbacks present different challenges on defense.
This is the 12th edition of IC's Opponent Preview, and the most important statistic for North Carolina has become glaringly obvious over the course of the season. While most teams are able to buck the turnover trend and win a game after losing the turnover margin, or vice versa, the Tar Heels are a perfect 11-0 with regard to that ratio.
North Carolina is plus-16 in turnover margin in its seven wins, and negative-12 in its four losses. Those numbers have taken a nose dive over the past two weeks, as the Heels ranked fourth nationally and have now fallen to 27th with an overall plus-6 ration.
"There will never be a football game ever played that you can lose the turnover ratio as dramatically poorly as we did today and give yourself any chance to win," Davis said following the loss to the Wolfpack.
UNC's six turnovers in last week's blowout loss to N.C. State is the most for a UNC squad since the 2002 team coughed the ball up nine times to a Ben Roethlisberger-led Miami (Ohio) program. The Tar Heels still lead the ACC with six non-offensive touchdowns, and have converting all of their forced turnovers into 83 points.
Duke, on the other hand, has quietly readjusted their recent history of turnover problems, ranking 37th nationally (5th ACC) with a 0.45 margin, forcing 24 while losing 19.
* North Carolina holds a 55-35-4 advantage in this series, including winning 17 of the last 18 meetings.
* In Durham, Carolina leads the series 27-16-2.
* The Victory Bell is once again up for grabs, which has been presented annually to the winner of the Carolina-Duke football game since the 1940s. A large bell on wheels, this prize was originated by former Tar Heel cheerleader Norm Sper. The winner is allowed to paint the frame of the bell its team color.