The momentum of each of these two teams could not be swinging in a more opposite direction.
After reaching a high of No. 5 in the AP Poll, North Carolina has lost two of its last three games, while Duke is coming off its most impressive performance of the season against Charlotte. When the Tar Heels come to Wallace Wade Stadium for a 12 p.m. showdown against the Blue Devils Saturday, however, both squads will have their eyes on the same prize.
“It’s a rivalry game, so emotions are always high. Last year the way that we lost the Victory Bell was tough, and I think we’ve taken that to heart and that is our extra motivation,” Duke guard Rakavius Chambers said. “We plan on getting that Victory Bell back because it belongs in Durham.”
As much as college football has fallen in love with the air raid, this rivalry game looks like it’s going to be won with some old-school smash-mouth football.
Duke’s Mataeo Durant and Deon Jackson will meet their ACC doppelgangers this weekend in North Carolina’s Michael Carter and Javonte Williams—if you haven’t been following, these two duos are running their way through the conference.
Reggie Bush and LenDale White, arguably the greatest rushing tandem in college football history, combined for 977 yards in USC’s first seven games of its 2004 national championship season. Both the Blue Devils’ and Tar Heels’ rushing duos beat that total in the same or fewer games, and neither are showing any signs of slowing down.
As talented as these running backs are, the offensive lines deserve their fair share of credit as well. Duke’s plug-in of true freshman Graham Barton at center for an injured Will Taylor did not slow down Jackson and Durant at all against Charlotte, but it remains to be seen how Barton will fare against an ACC foe.
“Our goal as an offensive line is to dominate,” Chambers said. “That’s the standard, and so on each and every single play our standard is to make sure that your guy is on the ground or your guy’s moved and you have accomplished your assignment to the best of your ability.”
While the rushing similarity between these two squads is uncanny, one can’t ignore the stark contrast in quarterback play. North Carolina’s Sam Howell is a threat to create a big play from anywhere on the field, with both his arm and his legs, and he has the perimeter weapons to do damage in an instant.
Junior receiver Dyami Brown is coming off a 240-yard, three-touchdown performance in which he torched the Virginia secondary in both the short and long game, but he’s not the only elite receiver the Tar Heels (4-2, 4-2 in the ACC) have. Senior Dazz Newsome may be underperforming so far this season, but he’s had a career that indicates he can break out at any time. Duke’s secondary needs to keep track of this duo on every play, especially when Howell gets out of the pocket.
“When any quarterback goes to scramble, you've got to stay in coverage. You hear defensive coaches will say that all the time. [Howell’s] got a lot of savvy and poise,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “He's had that when he was in high school, his whole career. So he's a very accurate, dangerous passer.”
On the other hand, Duke’s Chase Brice has been disappointing, though the Clemson transfer has occasionally shown flashes of what he was expected to be in Durham. The Georgia native does not have the mobility of Howell, but if Brice is locked in he can trade blows in the passing game.
From a receiving weapons standpoint, Duke (2-5, 1-5) simply does not have a threat right now playing at the same caliber of Brown. Junior Jake Bobo and redshirt sophomore Jarett Garner have shown big-play ability, but the biggest question is whether true sophomore Jalon Calhoun will finally have his signature game.
Calhoun was the Blue Devils’ most dynamic receiver a season ago, but he has not eclipsed 50 receiving yards this year since Week 1. The Tar Heels have exceptionally athletic linebackers in Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel, so if Calhoun can bust off big plays, it would be a demoralizing blow to the North Carolina defensive unit.
A phase of the game that the Blue Devils have thrived in this year is special teams. North Carolina struggled a week ago with its own punt returns, and Duke’s Isaiah Fisher-Smith has made a name for himself by wreaking havoc in the opponent's punt game.
“What I really think [Fisher-Smith] does well [is] he can move so quickly, low to the ground,” Cutcliffe said. “He can slice, in what you kind of have to do is slice on a punt block, but he's got a great, great vision.”
Earlier in the year, this game would be seen as a no-brainer Tar Heel blowout. But the fortunes of both squads have changed, leaving the door open for another nail-biting chapter in the Tobacco Road rivalry.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.