Hoping to rebound from a horrific collapse against Virginia Tech last weekend, Duke will need to take down a familiar foe to seal its bowl eligibility. But to make history this weekend, the Blue Devils will first have to break a longstanding drought with their Tobacco Road rivals.
Duke will square off with North Carolina Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium at 7 p.m. in the annual battle for the Victory Bell.
The team’s mantra—back to business.
“Obviously, [the loss] was like a slap in the face. Just to get us back grounded, I think we were getting into the clouds a little bit with all the success we were having,” defensive end Kenny Anunike said. “We’re definitely back to where we need to be. We’re still 5-2. That’s a great record right now especially in the state, in the conference and in the nation. A lot of teams can’t say that. We know that we still have a very good team. We had a minor setback but we need to come back this weekend and take it to North Carolina.”
The Bell has found a comfortable home in Chapel Hill in recent memory—the Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1 in the ACC) have not defeated the Tar Heels (5-2, 2-1) since 2003, which is the only Duke victory in the teams’ past 22 matchups.
“When you play a team as talented as North Carolina you are going to have to play extremely well fundamentally or they’ll make you look bad quickly. You have to block, you have to tackle, you have to do the little things because they have some great weapons on offense and some outstanding talent on defense,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s a big game. It’s a big game to our players and I’m sure that it more than likely is to theirs as well.”
After being burned for four touchdowns of 40 yards or more against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devil defensive unit will be wary of North Carolina’s quick-strike capabilities on offense. As always, the Tar Heels are a threat to score through the air behind the play of junior quarterback Bryn Renner, who has thrown 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions through seven games.
But the biggest addition to the North Carolina offense has been the emergence of the running game behind sophomore running back Giovani Bernard. He is the ACC’s leading rusher this season despite missing two games due to injury, averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game. He has rushed for seven touchdowns this season, adding two scores on receptions.
Bernard is undoubtedly the key to the Tar Heel offense—they are 5-0 when their star tailback plays and 0-2 without him. He was instrumental for North Carolina in its past two conference wins against Virginia Tech and Miami, notching 50 carries for 439 yards and three touchdowns. Bernard will be priority number one for the Duke defense, which allowed true freshman J.C. Coleman to run for 183 yards and two scores last week in its worst performance of the season.
“He’s definitely somebody we have to prepare for. He’s a great back, powerful and a good runner. But we’re going to have some answers for him,” Anunike said. “The defensive line, if we secure our gaps and the secondary is where they need to be we can make sure we have a handle on him and help us win that game.”
Duke and North Carolina have been squaring off on the gridiron since 1888—back when Duke was Trinity College—but the teams are not used to battling for the Victory Bell this early in the season. Saturday’s matchup marks the 99th meeting between the two schools, but is just the fourth time since 1965 the game has been played before the season’s final weekend. This weekend’s game is the earliest in the season the Blue Devils have faced the Tar Heels since 1926.
Although many ACC coaches have voiced that they prefer rivalry games to be played out in the season’s final week, Cutcliffe welcomes this year’s scheduling change. Playing the game before the final week of the season, which takes place on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, allows Duke students to attend the game against its fiercest rival.
“I know that traditionalists don’t like that, but I’m all about getting an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd,” Cutcliffe said. “I really don’t care what weekend we play. There’s going to be other good things that happen Thanksgiving weekend.”
Cutcliffe hopes the intensity of the rivalry, combined with the Blue Devils’ opportunity to become bowl eligible on their home turf, will create an electric home atmosphere for a difficult conference tilt. The coach hopes a bounceback performance coupled with the home crowd’s energy will bring the Blue Devils their first home victory against North Carolina since 1988.
“We’re looking forward to being back home in Wallace Wade,” Cutcliffe said. “I would expect we have an outstanding crowd and with circumstances like they are I’m looking forward to our students seeing their first North Carolina-Duke game. I want to see them come out in big numbers and would love to see a lot of Duke blue in the stadium.”