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Scouting the opponent: Duke football set to take on upstart North Carolina

<p>Brandon Hill and the Blue Devils will need to bounce back against North Carolina.</p>

Brandon Hill and the Blue Devils will need to bounce back against North Carolina.

Though this edition of the Tobacco Road rivalry isn't taking place on the hardwood, whenever the Blue Devils and Tar Heels meet, it just means a little more.

Duke will make the eight-mile trip down U.S. 15-501 Saturday to face North Carolina at 4 p.m., looking for a win to push the team one win away from bowl eligibility and back into the ACC Coastal Division race. Last week was not kind to head coach David Cutcliffe's squad as it fell hard against Virginia 48-14 in Charlottesville. With just four conference games remaining, the Blue Devils need a win if they want any chance at making the ACC championship game.

Despite dominating the rivalry series of late, Duke should have its hands full with the Tar Heels, who have a deceiving losing record with a six-point loss to No. 25 Wake Forest and a one-point defeat at the hands of No. 4 Clemson. North Carolina certainly has the talent to return the Victory Bell to Kenan Memorial Stadium, but the question is which team will be more dialed-in and well-coached when the game goes down to the wire.                                                                                                                                            

Has Mack Brown already put the Tar Heels back on the map?

After firing former head coach Larry Fedora in November, North Carolina re-hired Mack Brown, who turned the Tar Heels into a perennial AP Top 25 team in the 1990s before leaving to win a national championship at Texas. The 68-year-old wasn't seen as a long-term solution to the program's recent underwhelming seasons, but is succeeding at putting some energy back into the football team in Chapel Hill.

Through just half of a season, Brown is already filling Kenan Memorial Stadium and competing with some of the top teams in the country. In less than a year, North Carolina secured a top-30 recruiting class, including top quarterback prospect Sam Howell, who is already leading the Tar Heels this season. The Blue Devils have certainly owned the Tobacco Road rivalry over the past few seasons, but it seems like their rivals have already put themselves on a better path to competing on a national stage in college football. Brown also just landed the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2020 class in defensive end Desmond Evans.

“I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm around their program," Cutcliffe said. "Their coordinators are good football coaches. There were good coordinators schematically, not much difference. It’s just a matter of rejuvenating enthused football players”

Can the Blue Devil offense respond?

Last week's blowout loss to the Cavaliers saw Duke's normally consistent offense get manhandled on the road. The Blue Devils failed to put up at least 30 points for the first time since their season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama and finished with five turnovers on the day. The Tar Heels will provide another stingy test, as they have held the Tigers and Demon Deacons to well below their respective season averages.

Once a former Blue Devil quarterback commit, now-North Carolina junior Chazz Surratt changed positions to linebacker prior to this season and has excelled in the role, leading the team with 63 tackles, also adding four sacks. The Tar Heels also rank fifth in the conference in first downs surrendered on the season.

“They are going to be a well-coached and athletic group," Duke quarterback Quentin Harris said. "They’ve been successful at limiting some powerful offenses so far this year. They’ve got a couple linebackers who really fly around the field and some defensive backs who have really been able to do some good things in coverage as well. They present you with a variety of different looks defensively in terms of their fronts…. All around they’re a really athletic group, so we’re going to have to execute in order to move the ball against them.”

How well will Sam Howell perform on another big stage?

Taking over as a true freshman, Howell has impressed thus far in his early career, tallying 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His first taste of college football hasn't been a cake walk either, as, in addition to facing the two top-25 teams, he has also faced off against a talented South Carolina squad and an Appalachian State team receiving national recognition. This game against the Blue Devils may not be against a national title contender, but it will be interesting to see how he performs in a rivalry game in front of a sold out crowd.

Brown seems to be taking it easy with his young quarterback in big games, with Howell throwing less than 30 passes against Clemson, Wake Forest, and the Gamecocks. However, the North Carolina native threw 49 times last week in a narrow six-overtime loss to Virginia Tech and, with a five-touchdown performance, he could be in store for higher volume, especially with the way his skill players have turned the offense into dynamic form.

“They put up a lot of yards and a good amount of points," Duke safety Michael Carter II said. "Their receivers are fast. Dynamic receivers, big receivers. Some big, fast backs who really run hard and make people miss. I think they’re a dynamic offense so we just have to be on our best game on defense and play up to our standards.”

Will the Victory Bell remain colored Pantone 287?

The battle for the Victory Bell has been a one-sided affair over the last few years, with Duke taking the last three games under the leadership of former quarterback Daniel Jones. The Blue Devils can look back to those prior years for ways to keep North Carolina at bay.

If Duke wins Saturday, its four straight wins in the rivalry would be the program's longest streak against the Tar Heels since taking seven in a row from 1950 to 1956.

"I think that's a part of preparing for the game, you know, what worked last year, what didn't work last year and how they are this year," Carter acknowledged on the mindset of dominating the series. "But it's a new team, so you can expect different things, new wrinkles and things like that.  What happened last year is last year, and we're trying to focus on this year and trying to make the best of this opportunity."

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