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Film room: Rushing game will decide Duke football's Tobacco Road rivalry matchup

Mataeo Durant rushed for over 100 yards against North Carolina last season.
Mataeo Durant rushed for over 100 yards against North Carolina last season.

Duke football opens conference play this Saturday with a marquis matchup against cross-town rival North Carolina, but before the Blue Devils make their way to Kenan Stadium, the Blue Zone brings some film analysis to preview the game:  

Sitting at 3-1 ahead of conference play, Duke football is exactly where it should be at this point. After dropping an ugly one to Charlotte on the road in the season opener, the Blue Devils have rattled off three straight home wins over non-conference opponents and enter Saturday’s matchup with rival North Carolina with plenty of wind in their sails. 

The Tar Heels, on the other hand, are clearly not where they expected to be after four contests. North Carolina’s consensus preseason top-ten team—led by junior quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Sam Howell—fell flat right out of the gates, losing a low-scoring battle on the road to Virginia Tech in Week One. They appeared to right the ship after that with consecutive 59-point outputs against Georgia State and Virginia, but fell in shocking fashion Saturday to Georgia Tech, 45-22. One month in, the Tar Heels are unranked and virtually out of conference contention, something that seemed unspeakable just games ago.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the general expectations for North Carolina went wrong, but a good deal of the burden should fall on the shoulders of the defense after Saturday’s disaster. The Yellow Jackets had their way in practically every phase of the offense, but quarterback Jeff Sims took over the game with his legs, rushing for 128 yards and three scores on only ten carries. Watch how patient Sims is on this play before taking advantage of the space he’s granted and dashing in for the score.

Does Sims’ success as a ball carrier Saturday mean that Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who set new career-highs in rushing attempts, yards and scores against Kansas, can also make an impact on the ground? The first-year starter has quietly favored the run all season and even more so in recent weeks, with 28 total carries across the Blue Devils’ past two wins. As he continues to settle in, Holmberg’s legs are suddenly becoming a key component of Duke’s ACC-leading rushing offense.

Holmberg may not be as elusive as Sims, but he is decisive and purposeful enough to make up for it. Watch that play out on this touchdown run against Kansas:

Of course, it’s difficult to talk about Duke’s rushing success without mentioning Mataeo Durant. The senior running back, who broke two more 50-yard plays against the Jayhawks, already has three 100-yard outings, and his big-play ability is almost comically becoming a Saturday mainstay at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Tar Heels represent a big step up in competition, but he had success in a 100-yard rushing performance against them last season. Check out how free Durant is as soon as he breaks through the defensive line on this touchdown run; if he can get through the tackle box, there’s little reason to believe he can’t continue to power the Duke offense this weekend.

This isn’t a flattering portrayal of North Carolina’s defense, but keep in mind that neither is it a definitive analysis. The Tar Heels provide a unique challenge for the Blue Devils in so many ways, but the rushing game stands out as a weakness of North Carolina’s and a strength of Duke’s. Whichever team ends up winning that battle may, when all is said and done, end up ringing the Victory Bell at game’s end.

Jonathan Levitan | Sports Editor

Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.


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