It’s been more than 1,400 days since the platform of the Victory Bell has been painted anything but Duke blue.
This weekend, the Blue Devils will look to keep it that way.
Duke will travel eight miles down the road to Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill Saturday at 4 p.m. for the 106th iteration of Duke-North Carolina football. For Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe, the rivalry game gives his team an opportunity to move past last weekend’s embarrassing 48-14 blowout loss at the hands of Virginia.
“When you have a big game [upcoming], you have better turn it around,” Cutcliffe said. “What I told them Saturday night up there...I said, ‘This has been a horrific setback today.’ And it was. It hurt. It was a horrific setback on that day. This cannot be a setback tomorrow. I thought they did a good job in knowing that [when] you’re getting ready to play a rival and another conference game, you don’t have the luxury to let it linger.”
In order to bounce back from Saturday’s devastating defeat to the Cavaliers, the Blue Devil offense must rebound from one of its worst showings of the year. Duke (4-3, 2-2 in the ACC) managed just 250 yards of total offense against Virginia, coughing up an egregious five turnovers. Quentin Harris particularly struggled, completing just 13-of-26 passes for 88 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The Tar Heels—who rank a mediocre 62nd in the country in total yards allowed—do not boast the same caliber of defense the Cavaliers do, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Devils should take this matchup lightly.
“We have 16 turnovers as an offense for the season and 11 of them coming from our two conference losses,” Cutcliffe said. “When you turn the ball over at that rate, you really have no chance to win in a conference where every team you play is gifted, every team you play is well-coached.… When you have a conference game, you have to be better than you normally are.”
On the other end of the field, Duke’s defense—ranked 33rd in the country in total yards allowed—will be tested by a new Mack Brown-led North Carolina offense with four-star recruit Sam Howell under center. The true freshman comes to Chapel Hill as the No. 7 pocket passer quarterback recruit in the country according to ESPN and has lived up to the billing thus far, completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 1,892 yards, 20 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Outside of Howell, the Tar Heel offense should look relatively familiar to what the Blue Devils have seen in recent seasons, returning its top two rushers in Antonio Williams and Michael Carter Jr., as well as four of its top six receivers.
“We’re preparing for it,” Duke safety Michael Carter II said of North Carolina’s pass-first offense. “They got a dynamic receiving core. So of course, we’re preparing for the ball to be in the air a lot, the ball to come our way a lot.”
Another thing the Blue Devils must prepare for this weekend—besides opponent personnel—is the likelihood of a close game, especially in a rivalry matchup like this one. Duke has participated in only one contest decided by less than 18 points this season. On the other hand, the Tar Heels (3-4, 2-2) have played in only one game decided by more than six points.
In terms of that, Cutcliffe has emphasized wire-to-wire effort in practice as well as the need for playmakers to step up and make plays when the lights shine bright.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“Every year I’ve ever coached, [in] big games and big wins, there’s a sack-fumble caused by somebody on your team, there’s a catch made, there’s a run made, there’s a block made, there’s a tackle made that knocks the ball loose,” Cutcliffe said. “I think that will never change in football. The best teams seem to have those people appear, and we’ve got a lot of good football players but there’s no question there’s opportunities right now for people at the biggest of times to step up.”
Not only does this matchup mean a lot to those players in terms of the Carolina rivalry and Victory Bell, but it also is essential for Duke to remain in the ACC Coastal race.
While the Blue Devils’ division title hopes certainly took a blow in the Blue Devils’ loss at Virginia, the team still sits tied for third with both Virginia Tech and North Carolina and only a game behind the first-place Cavaliers. A loss Saturday, however, would virtually eliminate any hope Duke has at an ACC championship game appearance.
“This is Duke-North Carolina,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s always hopefully going to have a lot at stake. And this one certainly does.”