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Scouting the opponent: What does Duke football need to watch out for against North Carolina?

The Duke defense is going to have to deal with quarterback Sam Howell and company all afternoon.
The Duke defense is going to have to deal with quarterback Sam Howell and company all afternoon.

The much anticipated Battle of the Blues rivalry game is upon us. 

Duke and North Carolina have a showdown at Chapel Hill Saturday at 12 p.m. However, a game that was once a foregone conclusion heading into the season now has the potential to be a competitive one. North Carolina heads into this encounter 2-2 and is coming off its worst loss since 2018 in a shocking road defeat to Georgia Tech. Duke enters 3-1 and is a week removed from a commanding home victory against Kansas. Are these early season performances truly indicative of a gap that has closed between the two programs or is it merely a facade for the disparity that will show itself this weekend?

The Tar Heels started this season ranked No. 10. They were predicted to be serious conference championship contenders—a force to be reckoned with in the ACC. They looked to have several of the tools that make a successful team: a heisman-hopeful quarterback, a plethora of young four and five-star recruits and a promising season to build off of. However, early on they have been one of the biggest catastrophes in college football.

Four games in, North Carolina has already suffered two losses. Its initial disappointment came from its first outing against Virginia Tech, when it only managed to score 10 points and quarterback Sam Howell threw three interceptions. As a result, North Carolina plummeted from No. 10 to No. 24 the following week. Immediately, it was clear that something was amiss with this team, although some still gave the Tar Heels the benefit of the doubt. 

That slight bout of hope quickly dissipated after Georgia Tech annihilated North Carolina 45-22. Why hasn’t this team been living up to their expectations so far this season? Its alarming numbers may give insight into its poor performances.

North Carolina still has one of, if not the best, quarterback in the ACC in Howell. Although he did not get to as riveting of a start as many anticipated, he still ranks third in both touchdowns and yards, while also being second in quarterback efficiency. In addition to this, North Carolina has proven to not only be elite through the air but on the ground as well—as shown by the fact that they are also fourth in the conference in rushing yards. 

Unfortunately, the good ends there as North Carolina has an abundance of rough edges to clean up if it wants to have any chance of resurrecting its season—first and foremost being its abysmal defense. The Tar Heels rank second-to-last in total touchdowns allowed (14) and total points allowed (118). They are also giving up an alarming 29.5 points per game, with the only team trailing them being an 0-4 Florida State. 

Another glaring weakness is the offensive line, as the Tar Heels have given up the most sacks in the ACC with 17, and Howell’s talents can’t flourish if he is not given time to make plays.

Nonetheless, thanks to Howell’s star power and a balanced offense, North Carolina’s offense has thrived enough for it to have cumulatively outscored their opponents 150-118. But this warrants more concern than it would indicate at first glance if you look at its first two games compared to its last two. 

In the Tar Heels’ first two they outscored their opponents 69-34, while in the last two they have been outscored 81-84. The home victory against Virginia was a win on the scoreboard but an embarrassment defensively, as they gave up 500+ passing yards and five touchdowns. This lackluster defensive performance carried on to the following week against Georgia Tech where they gave up five touchdowns again, but this time were pummeled by the Yellow Jackets’ run game. If they could not handle Georgia Tech’s fifth-ranked rushing attack last week, what are they going to do against Duke’s top-ranked rushing attack? 

North Carolina still heads into its home game Saturday as heavy 20-point favorites, and on paper is the more talented team. But all signs are pointing to this contest being way more competitive than many previously thought.

The Tar Heels are on upset alert, and all the eyes will be on how they respond. Will they reassert their dominance as part of the ACC elite or will Duke put them under .500?

Let’s find out Saturday.

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