The Blue Devils enter Saturday's contest with a 5-3 (3-1) record that includes three-consecutive ACC victories for the first time since 1994. Head coach David Cutcliffe's second season in Durham started slowly with losses to FCS opponent Richmond (24-16) and Kansas (44-16) sandwiching a 35-19 win over Army, but Duke has climbed upon Thaddeus Lewis' right arm in winning four of its last five games.
As odd as it may sound, the Blue Devils are the lone remaining threat to Georgia Tech for the ACC Coastal Division crown with four conference games left on their schedule. Cutcliffe has complimented the nation's fifth-best passing attack (325.1 yards per game) with an efficient and opportunistic defense (324.8 ypg, five defensive touchdowns), overcoming substantial offseason losses due to graduation.
"Duke's playing very well. This is a dangerous football team. They're gifted, they're talented, and they didn't get to be 5-3, and 3-1 in the conference, by accident." – UNC head coach Butch Davis
"I told him that it was the best game I've had a quarterback play." – Cutcliffe referring to Thad Lewis' 459-yard passing performance against N.C. State on Oct. 10. The Duke head coach has also coached Peyton and Eli Manning.
Blue Devil Spotlight
When Thaddeus Lewis announced his top-five college choices prior to the start of his senior year at Hialeah (Fla.) Lakes High School back in 2005, the list included Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Clemson, Texas A&M and Rutgers. But the right-handed signal caller followed that announcement by indicating that he was looking for a great education along with a "favorable" depth chart.
Former Duke head coach Ted Roof slowly worked his way into the forefront of Lewis' recruitment, ultimately pulling the versatile athlete out of South Florida over South Florida, TCU and Pittsburgh.
What's happened in the four years since has been a thing of beauty for the longtime doormat of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 6-foot-1, 215-pounder may as well use Duke's record book as his resume, considering his name is plastered throughout. Lewis is rapidly ascending to the top of his school's list in numerous categories, needing 18 passing attempts (1,357), 29 completions (791), 564 passing yards (9,050) and 274 yards of total offense (8,980) to own the records outright.
He already owns the school record for career passing touchdowns (62), and recently became the first player in Duke history – third in the ACC – to throw for over 2,000 yards in four straight seasons.
But those numbers have had little significance in the grand scope of things as the Blue Devils only won five games in Lewis' first three years in Durham. Now, in his senior season, Duke has already matched that win total and is looking earn its first bowl bid since 1994.
"It would be huge, just because of all the adversity we faced being here at Duke, going 1-11 or 0-12 the [first] two years, but obviously battling back to turn this program around," Lewis said. "It would be huge. With this being my last season, this is the start of building a program. I want to help contribute to getting these guys to a bowl game, to where they can get that experience and want to get there every year."
Those comments provide evidence as to the type of leader that Lewis has become during his career at Duke.
"He's a special young man," Cutcliffe said. "It goes beyond what he does on the field for us. He's a tremendous leader. Quarterbacks sometimes try to be leaders. Thad Lewis doesn't have to try. People respond to him… He's a very talented young man. Guys on both sides of the ball feel like if we play well, Thad's going to give us a chance to win games because he can make so many plays."
Matchups to Watch
Duke's Air Assault vs. North Carolina's Pass Defense
The Blue Devils lead the ACC and rank fifth nationally in passing offense this season, averaging 325.1 yards per game. But even more impressive is the fact that Lewis (188-of-296, 2,315, 15 TD, 4 INT) has upped his game in conference play, averaging 383.0 yards per contest.
Fourteen different Duke receivers have caught at least one pass, while a collection of seven players have combined for 161 receptions and 12 touchdowns. If you are looking for one go-to receiver, you're out of luck. Lewis doesn't even have two or three favorite options – he has four in Donovan Varner (42 catches for 660 yards, 5 TD), Austin Kelly (41 catches for 456 yards, 3 TD), Conner Vernon (38 catches for 562 yards, 3 TD) and Johnny Williams (28 catches for 359 yards, TD).
For comparison's sake, Greg Little leads North Carolina with 37 receptions for 348 yards and two touchdowns.
"They're spreading the field and they really try to isolate receivers on certain people," Davis said. "They've got a scheme and a philosophy in the way in which they try to throw the football. It picks on people and it picks on zones. The one thing that I've been very impressed with is that the receivers run adjusted routes extremely well."
North Carolina counters with the nation's 10th-best passing defense (163.4 ypg), but the Tar Heels are still feeling the effects of Christian Ponder's dissection (33-of-40 passes for 395 yards, 3 TD) nearly two weeks ago. Lewis has been sacked 20 times in '09 (86th nationally), so UNC's ability to get the quarterback and disrupt his rhythm will be crucial in preventing another superhuman effort.
North Carolina's Ground Game vs. Duke's Run Defense
Sometimes the best way to defend an opposing quarterback is to keep him on the sidelines. Davis prefers a clock-controlling rushing attack and UNC finally delivered last week against Virginia Tech, taking the ball and hiding from the Hokies with a 16-play, 78-yard fourth-quarter drive that erased over nine minutes from the clock.
In the past two games, UNC has tallied 419 rushing yards on 83 carries, good for a 5.0 yards-per-carry mark. The result has been an offense that is finding itself in more 3rd-and-manageable situations as opposed to the third-and-forevers that plagued John Shoop's unit earlier in the season.
Against Virginia Tech, North Carolina converted 10 of its final 16 third-down attempts, allowing the offense to stay on the field while giving the defense plenty of time to rest.
"There was a pretty dramatic shift in our ability to stay in makeable down-and-distance because it allows you to be multi-dimensional," Davis said. "We were able to run for some first downs on third down and 2-3-4-5 instead of having to throw the ball… As long as you're in that either/or situation, they've got to play a little more honest."
Duke will respond with a run defense that ranks sixth in the ACC in allowing 132.6 yards per contest. The Blue Devils have held three opponents to under 100 rushing yards this season, including Virginia (89 yards on 28 carries) and Maryland (67 yards on 31 carries) (2.2 avg.).