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Scouting the opponent: Uncovering an under-accomplished North Carolina squad

Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams has once again been the Tar Heels' most dangerous deep-ball threat this season.
Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams has once again been the Tar Heels' most dangerous deep-ball threat this season.

Usually when a 1-7 team rolls into Wallace Wade Stadium to face the Blue Devils, not many people take notice. If that team is wearing baby blue, however, it will always be a fierce showdown that no player or coach overlooks.

Duke is set to host its arch rival North Carolina in the battle for the Victory Bell this Saturday, but nobody on this Blue Devil squad has chalked up this matchup with the under-accomplished Tar Heels as a win just yet.

“They’re better than 1-7,” senior wideout Johnathan Lloyd said. “You can turn on the tape, they’re not a bad football team. They’ve had some breaks go against them. They’ve been competitive in pretty much every game, so it’s not a bad football team. We have to come out and play, and if we don’t, we can get beat.”

North Carolina has failed to right the ship after a last-place ACC finish last year, but is still a team that’s stocked with talent and has played many Coastal teams down to the wire. Larry Fedora’s squad is the only ACC team to knock off Pittsburgh this year, and came within one or two scores of Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Virginia, teams that have all been ranked this year.

The Tar Heels haven’t played up to their standards so far, but have proved throughout the season that they are not afraid to fight and will play until the final whistle, something you wouldn’t expect a 1-7 team to do.

“In these games, the hungry team wins,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “I think like all these ACC games, but particularly this one, the teams are going to be fairly evenly talented. It comes down to other stuff and how bad you want to win.”

The key for the Blue Devils lies in their ability to control the turnover game, something that both teams have struggled with in the past. Duke has not forced a turnover in each of their three losses thus far, and North Carolina’s quarterbacks have combined to throw 11 interceptions to just nine touchdowns.

“We have overemphasized takeaways,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’re putting a quota on our defensive guys on the practice field. Our coaches have done a good job demanding that kind of effort from them in practice.”

There have been many calls for Fedora's firing after leading the Tar Heels to a 5-19 record in their last 24 games, but Cutcliffe lauded his ability to coach special teams, something that could tip the Victory Bell in North Carolina’s favor if the game is close.

“They’ve got good specialists and outstanding return people," Cutcliffe said. "They’ve always been, in my opinion, one of the better coached teams in our league in special teams, even before I turned on the tape."

This Duke team has too much leadership to overlook their nemesis’ current record, but the Blue Devils will have to come out and prove it against a team that’s yearning for their first win against the junior signal-caller Jones, a Charlotte native who knows all about the rivalry.

“It’s big,” Jones said. “Growing up in the Carolina-Duke rivalry is the sports rivalry for me. Being able to participate in that is pretty cool, and we’ll try to do what we can to keep the Victory Bell here.”