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Scouting the opponent: Breaking down a struggling, yet formidable North Carolina

North Carolina's defense has struggled mightily against the run in recent weeks.
North Carolina's defense has struggled mightily against the run in recent weeks.

No matter the teams' records, Duke vs. North Carolina always has intriguing storylines.

Coming off a 53-19 blowout victory against an overmatched Charlotte, the Blue Devils will now face off against their in-state rival Tar Heels Saturday at 12 p.m. in Wallace Wade Stadium, looking to avenge last year’s heartbreaking loss in Chapel Hill.

Since head coach Mack Brown made his return to North Carolina's sideline in 2019, the Tar Heels have seen their fortunes change dramatically compared to the disappointing final years of the Larry Fedora era. Recruiting has immediately improved, with the team's 2020 class ranked 16th nationally according to ESPN and its 2021 class currently ranked seventh.

Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell has been a revelation under center, with Michael Carter and Javonte Williams providing a two-headed rushing attack that may remind you of what the Blue Devils have in Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant. On the other side of the ball, linebacker Chazz Surratt—who picked off Jackson’s goal-line jump pass to clinch last season's win against Duke—anchors the Tar Heel defense with a team-leading 32 tackles and four sacks.

“North Carolina is an outstanding football team and a balanced football team,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I mean, everyone talks about their offense and rightfully so, but their defense has got a bunch of great athletes.”

Despite their immense talent, the Tar Heels have lost two of their last three contests, both defeats coming at the hands of mediocre ACC opponents in Florida State and Virginia. Thanks to those disappointing performances, North Carolina has gone from ranking as high as No. 5 in the AP Poll to dropping out of the rankings entirely. 

Howell, who was discussed in the preseason as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate, has been accurate and aggressive throughout this season, completing 67 percent of his passes to the tune of 10.5 yards per attempt. With an inexperienced secondary being the weak spot of the Blue Devils' defensive unit, Howell will likely look to attack the perimeter all afternoon.

The Tar Heels have struggled to protect Howell, however, allowing 3.2 sacks per game up to this point. While Brown has obviously brought in talent in the trenches, it usually takes longer than a couple seasons at the helm to build consistent depth up front. 

This bodes well for Duke's talented pass rushers, who will need to bring pressure all day in order for this matchup to be a competitive one. Defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje both sit alone atop the national leaderboard with 7.5 sacks apiece, an incredible stat that makes you realize just how superb those two have been during this otherwise disheartening Duke campaign.

“We’ve got to do as good a job as you can do of trying to get them off-schedule,” Cutcliffe said regarding Duke’s potential to bring pressure on Howell. “When you do get pressure on a quarterback or if you’re fortunate enough to get a sack, you throw the down and distance off-schedule [and] you’ve got a chance to hopefully get them off the field some.”

On the other end, North Carolina has had some serious problems defensively, giving up 30-plus points in three of its last four games. Just last week, Virginia racked up 210 yards on the ground in its upset victory of the Tar Heels, a sign that the Blue Devils' dynamic rushing tandem will have a chance to put the peddle to the meddle this Saturday. 

All in all, Duke is obviously an underdog in this Tobacco Road matchup. While crazy things have happened in this rivalry over the last few years, the Blue Devils are going to need to execute nearly perfectly in order to make things interesting against this talented North Carolina squad. 

Max Rego

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.


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