Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. Duke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina welcomes archrival Duke to Kenan Stadium on Saturday for the annual grudge match that actually has bowl implications for both teams for the first time since 1994.

North Carolina (5-3, 1-3 ACC) enters Saturday's showdown as a 10-point favorite over the Blue Devils (5-3, 3-1 ACC). The Tar Heels have won 18 of the last 19 meetings and five straight against Duke.

Although this series has recently provided some hard-fought contests, the longtime lack of significance surrounding this game has created an apathetic aura instead of one boasting of excitement and anticipation. Dan Orner's unadulterated assault of Duke's inflatable helmet back in 2002 would have earned national headlines if the two programs had fielded respectable teams that season as opposed to a combined 5-19 mark.

North Carolina's roller coaster ride over the past three decades stands as a distinct contrast for a Duke program that hasn't been to a bowl game since 1994 – the last year that these two teams met with winning records.

But second-year Blue Devils head coach David Cutcliffe is changing the status quo in Durham. After a season-opening loss to FCS opponent Richmond, Duke has won four of its last five, including three straight ACC games against N.C. State (3-5, 0-4), Maryland (2-6, 1-3) and Virginia (3-5, 2-2).

The Tar Heels are fully aware that the Blue Devils are not the same program of their youth.

"We've got to play against Duke the same way we did against Virginia Tech in Blacksburg on a Thursday night," UNC quarterback T.J. Yates said. "You can't put it off as another home game vs. Duke. It's got to mean that much more to us."

This game has served as the season finale for these programs in 46 of the past 56 seasons. Ironically enough, the ACC office decided this offseason to pair North Carolina and N.C. State on rivalry weekend following Thanksgiving, moving the Duke contest up three weeks on the schedule.

Speculation out of Durham over the summer seemed to suggest that UNC had a hand in that adjustment, but Butch Davis confirmed earlier this week that his program used its one schedule request to set up UNC's first-ever home Thursday night game two weeks ago against Florida State.

But if this game represents the true rivalry that many fans believe it is, then when it's played should not necessarily matter.

"For years, Tennessee and Alabama played on the third Saturday in October," Cutcliffe said. "The Florida-Tennessee game is the first conference game for both teams and you can't get a bigger rivalry than that. So I don't think that when you play a rivalry has anything to do with it."

Duke's rise to prominence in the Coastal Division coincides with quarterback Thaddeus Lewis' monster senior season (188-of-296, 2,315, 15 TD, 4 INT). The Blue Devils' own the nation's fifth-best passing attack (325.1 yards per game), but currently rank seventh in the ACC in scoring offense (29.5 ppg).

A big reason for that disconnect is a rushing offense that is churning out just 75.3 yards per game. Duke ranks 74th nationally in red zone offense (24-of-30) with only three of its 16 red zone touchdowns coming on the ground.

But the last time North Carolina's pass defense (163.4 ypg, 10th nationally) encountered a quarterback of Lewis' ability level, Florida State's Christian Ponder (33-of-40 passing, 395 yards, 3 TD) looked unstoppable in the Seminoles' come-from-behind 30-27 victory nearly two weeks ago.

"Sometimes you get tests and challenges and if you don't pass them, then before long they're going to come back up again," Davis said. "And now two weeks later, we're going to find ourselves on Saturday in the same situation."

The Tar Heel offense has finally gotten healthy and the results have been obvious in its past two games in the form of 419 rushing yards, with 203 of those yards coming from Shaun Draughn. North Carolina managed just 17 total first downs in losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia, but has totaled 60 first downs in the past three contests.

The Blue Devils counter with league's fourth-ranked defense (324.8 yards per game). Duke is eighth in scoring defense at 24 points per game.

One thing is for certain – Saturday's losing team faces an uphill battle in qualifying for a postseason bowl berth. The Blue Devils would need to win two of three games against Georgia Tech, Miami and Wake Forest, while the Tar Heels would have to win two of three from Miami, Boston College and N.C. State.

"Shoot, these players, they've got bowl game in the back of their mind," Cutcliffe said. "They realize both teams are fighting for the same carrot, and to me that makes it a whole lot more fun."

Kickoff is set for 3:30pm and will be televised by ESPNU.

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