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Duke looks to hold onto Victory Bell, beat North Carolina in Tobacco Road showdown

Shaun Wilson and the Blue Devils are set to attack a porous Tar Heel defense in Chapel Hill.
Shaun Wilson and the Blue Devils are set to attack a porous Tar Heel defense in Chapel Hill.

Two bitter rivals will do battle this weekend as Duke attempts to keep the Victory Bell in Durham for another year.  

The Blue Devils will look to begin their conference slate on a high note and advance to 4-0 for just the second time since 1994 Saturday when they travel to Chapel Hill to face Tobacco Road rival North Carolina at 3:30 p.m. at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Duke earned its lone conference victory last season in a 28-27 upset win against the then-No. 17 Tar Heels Nov. 10 and has defeated North Carolina in three of the teams’ last five matchups. 

Opening ACC play this year with the rivalry game—the earliest in the fall the two teams have ever played—will likely give the matchup a slightly different feel than in years past. 

“I think it is unusual, probably for the players on both teams to have a game that is this big—a rivalry game—with this much intensity,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know how many times Duke or North Carolina has been an opener for either team in conference—this may be the very first time—but it’s a huge opener for us.”

In order for the Blue Devils (3-0, 0-0 in the ACC) to maintain their perfect record on the season, they will need to continue to keep their opponents off the ground. Duke will face a daunting Tar Heel ground attack Saturday that rushes for more than 160 yards per contest. But the Blue Devils will counter with the nation’s most effective rush defense that has allowed just 143 total yards through three games. 

Duke has proven it can contain some of the best running backs in the nation, including one of last year’s top rushers in Northwestern’s Justin Jackson, who the Blue Devils held to just 18 yards on the ground Sept. 9.

Thanks in part to its rushing defense, Duke has done an impressive job in limiting third-down conversions by its opponents and getting off the field in a hurry on defense. In the last two weeks, the Blue Devils held Northwestern and Baylor to a combined 2-for-22 on third down. Redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields said the ability to limit gains on first and second down by stopping the run has been the key to their success. 

“Its been huge,” Fields said. “When you can get guys in 3rd-and-10 or even 3rd-and-7, you’re able to do different things defensively—mix it up and send blitzes. That makes it tough on teams. We’ve been able to get pressure on the QB on third down and cover guys up in different ways through zones and man coverages, so it’s been working pretty well so far.”

Although the Blue Devils have had success on third down in the past, North Carolina’s ability to attack from all fronts provides an interesting test for Duke. Redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt has been hard to stop through his first three games. The former Blue Devil commit has completed 69.7 percent of his passes and has yet to be picked off in his college career.

The Tar Heels (1-2, 0-1) also have the ability to dominate on the ground, led by running backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, who have each gained more than five yards per carry this season. Thanks to consistency in both phases of the offense, North Carolina has averaged 39 points through its first three contests.

The Blue Devils will counter the Tar Heels with a prolific offense of their own. In addition to early success from quarterback Daniel Jones—who has already posted two 300-yard passing performances this season—Duke has also been outstanding on the ground. Running backs Shaun Wilson and Brittain Brown have plowed through opposing defenses and led a rushing attack that has averaged more than 240 yards per contest. 

The Blue Devils have also had success on the ground against the Tar Heels in recent years. Duke has surpassed 225 rushing yards in the teams’ last two meetings and will rely on the strength of its offensive line in order to power through North Carolina’s defense once again Saturday, wearing down a Tar Heel squad that has four players out for the game with injuries and nine more out for the season.

“In the past, we’ve run the ball really well against them,” offensive lineman Zack Harmon said. “We believe that we have some good schemes this week that will open that up, and we have to rely on each other on the offensive front to open up those holes and just out-physical them.”

Michael Model

Digital Strategy Director for Vol. 115, Michael was previously Sports Editor for Vol. 114 and Assistant Blue Zone Editor for Vol. 113.  Michael is a senior majoring in Statistical Science and is interested in data analytics and using data to make insights.


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