The last time North Carolina visited Durham, it was 7-2 but got upset by an underperforming Duke team that was on its way to a mediocre 4-8 season.
The roles are reversed this time, as the Tar Heels hope they can return the favor to stop their downward spiral and knock the Blue Devils off their pedestal a week after Duke’s biggest win in years.
The Blue Devils hope to build on their road stunner at Miami when they host North Carolina Saturday at 12:20 p.m. at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke is a 10-point favorite to keep the Victory Bell and beat the Tar Heels for the third straight year, which would be its longest winning streak in the rivalry since 1987-89.
“It’s a competitive rivalry, so this will be a part of it and hopefully we keep the bell in Durham a little while longer,” redshirt senior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd said about facing North Carolina. “It’s definitely loud in the building ringing the bell every time somebody walks through, so we know what kind of week it is.”
Although the Blue Devils (6-3, 2-3 in the ACC) reached bowl eligibility with their 20-12 win against the Hurricanes last week, they have struggled on their home field all season. Duke lost as a favorite against both Virginia Tech and Virginia earlier this season, and it has only won one ACC home game in six tries since that victory against the Tar Heels two years ago.
That could change against North Carolina (1-7, 1-5), which is in the middle of its second straight nightmarish season and hasn’t beaten any conference opponents at home or on the road except Pittsburgh since that night in Durham. The Tar Heels are currently on a five-game losing skid, but they have repeatedly come close—they have been tied or held the lead in the fourth quarter of three of their last four losses.
“If you were watching tape and you didn’t know their record, you wouldn’t believe the record,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s a good North Carolina football team.”
North Carolina’s Achilles’ heel has typically been getting worn down defensively in the run game, and it is just No. 13 in the ACC with 225 rushing yards allowed per game. The Blue Devils’ rushing attack is also near the bottom of the conference on offense, but they have improved in recent weeks thanks to the emergence of sophomore Deon Jackson.
Jackson has rushed for 275 yards in Duke’s last two games, breaking the program’s single-game all-purpose yards record in its loss at Pittsburgh before setting the tone for the victory at Miami with a 75-yard touchdown run on the Blue Devils’ first play from scrimmage. Redshirt sophomore Brittain Brown’s status remains uncertain after battling injuries for the last month, but Jackson has proven to be an electric workhorse in his absence.
“He adds a whole lot. He’s an extremely talented player. He’s a powerful guy, he can run in the tackles, run through people, run through tackles,” quarterback Daniel Jones said. “He can run past people with his speed. He’s certainly one of the fastest people on our team.”
Defensively, the potential absence of All-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris would be more difficult to overcome. Giles-Harris left last week’s game in the second half with an MCL injury, and Cutcliffe has not given a definitive update on his status.
Without Giles-Harris down the stretch, senior linebacker Ben Humphreys delivered a herculean effort to keep Miami’s offense in check and lift Duke to bowl eligibility for the sixth time in seven seasons. Reserve linebacker Koby Quansah is also back in action after missing much of October with an injury.
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Although Duke has cleared the always-critical hurdle to six wins, matching its highest regular-season total since 2015, its veterans still have their sights set on more success. The outcome Saturday could make or break whether the Blue Devils can turn 2018 into a memorable season or an average year.
“We can’t afford to be up and down. We’ve got to finish this thing out. November needs to be special for us,” Cutcliffe said. “November of your senior year—you only get one of them. Seniors need to play like seniors.... That should be enough said for those guys.”