After a disappointing 48-14 road loss against Virginia, the Blue Devils are set to face off with their rival North Carolina, looking to maintain possession of the coveted Victory Bell for the fourth straight season.
North Carolina has experienced a rejuvenation in head coach Mack Brown’s first year back in Chapel Hill. Brown, who was at the helm for the Tar Heels from 1988-1997, was hired this past offseason to turn around a struggling program, and in the process, hired Phil Longo to run a spread passing attack offensively and Jay Bateman to implement a havoc-based, blitz-heavy defense.
Tar Heels' freshman quarterback Sam Howell has excelled in his first seven games commanding the offense, throwing for 20 touchdown passes on the year. North Carolina does not limit the playbook for Howell despite his youth, and the North Carolina native is tasked with reading coverages at the second and third levels of the defense.
In their passing game, the Tar Heels spread their receivers out from one sideline to the other, stretching the defense and placing significant stress on opposing safeties. Longo employs basic principles of the spread offense by creating beneficial matchups for Howell to exploit. An outside receiver will often be covered by the opponent's best cornerback, which takes that defender out of the play completely. Howell never looks at the outside receiver, a tactic utilized by spread-oriented quarterbacks and rather focuses on a slot receiver with elite speed who is pitted against a nickel safety lacking the same top-end quickness.
In last week's close loss to Virginia Tech, Howell freezes the eyes of the safeties for a split-second using a quick play-action fake and subsequently attacks the defense with a vertical throw. The offensive line slants and the tight end helps protect an edge rusher in order to give Howell a clean pocket to throw from.
In the red zone, North Carolina utilizes misdirection to provide easy completions for Howell. With Howell’s accuracy, the Tar Heels’ offense is difficult to stop once it gets into a rhythm. Longo’s scheme and his team's execution has resulted in the No. 15 red zone offense nationally. Play-action once again is a key facet of the Tar Heels' success inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.
Howell lines up under center with three men in the backfield to give the impression that North Carolina will run the ball, however, the fake and rollout puts the linebackers in a difficult predicament, and the receiver in the flat gets to the outside before the defense can react. Easy throws like this were a big help in Howell's five touchdown passes against the Hokies.
On the other side of the ball, the Tar Heels rank No. 62 in total defense, an improvement from recent years. Against Clemson earlier this season, North Carolina held the then top-ranked Tigers to just 21 points, an impressive feat considering the elite talent that Clemson has at its disposal. The Tar Heels' defensive line brings pressure from multiple angles, and the secondary is tasked with maintaining gap control on the perimeter.
Different blitz techniques from Bateman put opposing quarterbacks in harm’s way, and Duke will need to adjust protections constantly when Quentin Harris drops back. North Carolina’s defensive line is disciplined in its execution, and the Tar Heels consistently had players in the backfield against a physical Clemson offensive line.
North Carolina has a losing record on the year, but don't be fooled, the Tar Heels will present a big test to the Blue Devils Saturday. In what has become the norm in this heated rivalry, this season's battle for the Victory Bell figures to come down to the wire.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.