After a week filled with talk of what should have been, the Blue Devils will finally have a chance to put 'the play' behind them and regain control of the ACC Coastal Division in the fourth straight meaningful matchup against their crosstown rivals.

Duke will travel to Kenan Memorial Stadium Saturday to take on No. 21 North Carolina at noon. The game will feature two of the ACC Coastal’s best and will have major postseason implications, as the winner of Saturday’s contest will be in the driver seat to claim the division crown. And even during a week filled with talk of controversy, Duke is doing its best to stay focused on the task at hand—not that focusing is difficult when that task is the Tar Heels.

“For the seniors, this is the last game against the University of North Carolina,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “A lot of things turn and focus on a football game for those guys, so I’m proud of the quality of that entire senior class. I continue to point that out to all of them each and every week regardless of the result of the ballgame on Saturday.”

That being said, the elephant in the room for the Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1 in the ACC) heading into their biggest game—rivalry or not—of the season is not last season’s shellacking or subsequent spray-paint locker room destruction wrought by the Tar Heels (7-1, 4-0), but rather the damage done by the now-suspended referees in last week’s controversial loss to Miami.

From a wider viewpoint, the defeat technically does not make Duke’s road to the ACC Championship game any harder than it was already going to be, with games at North Carolina and at home against Pittsburgh coming up. But the game’s final play—an eight-lateral, mismanaged bonanza of a kickoff return that resulted in four missed calls that should have resulted in a Duke win—left the entire Blue Devil team stunned. In the lead-up to Saturday's contest, the players have been making sure to properly process and move on from the Miami loss so as to focus on what will be a handful of a Tar Heel squad. 

“It’s definitely a tough one, a blow to us for our season, but we’ve moved on,” senior linebacker Dwayne Norman said. “There’s nothing we can do about what happened Saturday. Definitely have a big, huge game coming up this Saturday, so we’ve moved on and changed our focus to a very explosive offense in UNC.”

For Duke, that meant not even re-watching the now-infamous play throughout the week’s various film sessions. And once the Blue Devils were able to move forward mentally and physically, it allowed them a chance to look back at the havoc caused by North Carolina during—and after—last year's 45-20 loss at Wallace Wade.

“We kind of took the last play and removed it from what we watched—even with special teams, they really didn’t watch it. From an O-line perspective, we just watched ourselves,” senior center Matt Skura said. “Definitely what happened during the game, what happened after the game with our locker room and our field, I think we’ve got to remind those guys what actually happened to spark a little bit of a fire underneath them.”

Past distractions aside, the on-field matchup between the two teams will pit a pair of offenses that are both seemingly settling into a groove at the perfect time.

Redshirt junior quarterback Thomas Sirk has stepped up in the past two weeks, showing more confidence to air the ball out than he did in the first half of the season. Sirk surpassed 200 yards passing against both Virginia Tech and Miami—the first times since the Blue Devils' season opener at Tulane that he accomplished the feat. 

Skura attributed his quarterback’s sudden burst of confidence to the natural maturation process as well as Sirk spending Duke’s bye week reviewing all the film up to that point in the season.

“It’s skyrocketed from where we were in the first half of the season before the bye week,” Skura said. “During that bye week, I think he got a lot time to review a lot of the film, know what he needs to get better at and we’ve definitely seen that through the Virginia Tech game, going through four overtimes and winning, and even in this Miami game, being able to to be in a high-pressure situation, to need and go take a huge drive all the way down the field and get it done, I think he’s really confident right now.”

On the flip side of the ball, the normally stout Duke defense has had some of its weaknesses exposed in the past two weeks, allowing an uncharacteristically high 43 points to Virginia Tech and then allowing Miami’s redshirt freshman quarterback Malik Rosier—who was filling in for normal starter Brad Kaaya—to amass 272 yards and two scores on 20-of-29 passing. 

With North Carolina dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams on deck, the Blue Devils sudden defensive concerns will have to be quelled quickly, lest Williams and the Tar Heel offense put on a repeat performance—locker room vandalism presumably excluded. 

If Duke defeats the Tar Heels, it will be either be a half-game ahead or behind Pittsburgh—who is taking on No. 8 Notre Dame—for the division lead, as the Panthers have yet to observe their bye week.