5 things to know before Duke football takes aim at rival North Carolina

Tar Heel players celebrate during North Carolina's 2019 win against Duke in Chapel Hill.
Tar Heel players celebrate during North Carolina's 2019 win against Duke in Chapel Hill.

As the air chills in the Triangle with Halloween approaching, the 4-2 Blue Devils welcome archrival North Carolina for a duel Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Tar Heels have become somewhat of a Michael Myers to Duke recently, killing its spirit by coming out on top in almost every competition. Just this year, North Carolina has trumped the Blue Devils in basketball (twice) and most recently in women’s soccer. Football has been no different: The Tar Heels have held possession of the Victory Bell since 2019.

The ghosts of a season ago haunted the Blue Devils last weekend, as they suffered an uncharacteristic, stinging overtime loss at the hands of Georgia Tech. “I thought for three out of the four quarters we did not play our best football,” head coach Mike Elko said during Monday’s media availability.

The Blue Devils did overcome a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, showing excellent toughness. However, after entering the game as the favorite, the loss is a result that Duke may look upon with serious regret come bowl season. 

North Carolina, on the other hand, sits atop the ACC Coastal Division at 5-1 after a DeAndre Boykins interception sealed a 27-24 road win against Miami. The Tar Heels’ high-flying offense, led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Drake Maye, averages 42.3 points per game, ranking eighth in the nation. In the last two weeks, they have steadily improved on defense after giving up 45 points to Notre Dame, only allowing 10 points against Virginia Tech and 24 against Miami.

Just as Duke bounced back effectively at home after a tough road loss to Kansas, it has a chance to do so on Family Weekend. Here are five things to look for.

Drake Maye

Maye has made quite the impression through five weeks. The freshman has thrown for 1,903 yards and a whopping 21 touchdowns, and holds the second-highest QBR in FBS. Much like Victor Frankenstein, he seems to make the dead come to life; his ability as a dual-threat allows him to revive plays and pick up needed first downs. He has rushed for 308 yards thus far, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. 

Against Miami, Maye threw for 309 yards, including an impressive touchdown pass right before halftime. On second-and-10, Maye was hit hard at the knees as he released the ball. His off-balanced throw still managed to find wide receiver Josh Downs in a window of five Miami defenders for the score. It is this kind of magic that powers the North Carolina offense and has earned Maye a place on Heisman watchlists. 

Duke’s run defense

The Blue Devils’ run defense against teams with pure pocket passing quarterbacks is impressive; they held Virginia to 93 yards and 3.7 yards per carry. Unfortunately, like a vampire in the sun, they have melted when facing the star power of a dual-threat quarterback. To put it bluntly, the Duke run defense was absent Saturday in Atlanta. It allowed 180 yards on the ground, 95 of them courtesy of Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims. The Yellow Jacket rushers averaged 4.9 yards per carry and easily extended drives, keeping the Duke offense off the field. 

Matched up against the mobile Maye, the Duke run defense faces its toughest challenge of the year. Monday, Elko emphasized “not allowing [Maye] to get outside the pocket and create plays with his feet.”

If Duke can accomplish this goal, yet to be seen this season, it can force Maye into passing mistakes and increase its chances of victory.

Shaka Heyward

Linebacker Shaka Heyward is the centerpiece of the Duke defense. His presence is felt everywhere, especially on running downs as he flies toward the ball to make stops. The 6-foot-3 senior from Dacula, Ga., has 38 tackles on the season, the second-most on the team. 

Unfortunately for Duke, Heyward was ejected for targeting Saturday, a real blow to the team. The penalty was assessed in the first half against Georgia Tech, meaning he will be available for kickoff against the Tar Heels. For Duke to have any chance at stopping the run, Heyward will need to make big plays early and often.

Turnover margin

Throughout Duke’s first five games, a point of pride was winning the turnover battle in every single contest. Duke only had two turnovers on offense while forcing an outstanding eight fumbles, propelling it to an ACC-best turnover margin. 

However, it all went awry when the Blue Devils went down to Georgia. Sims played like a fiddle maestro, leaving the Duke defense unable to force a single turnover. Duke quarterback Riley Leonard then threw a crushing red-zone interception in the fourth quarter. 

North Carolina struggles with turnovers and has only won the turnover battle in two of six contests. Look for Duke to try to exploit that Saturday night.

Pancol’s presence

Eli Pancol, the 6-foot-3 senior receiver from Pendleton, Ind., has become Duke’s deep-threat target. This season, he has amassed 245 yards through six games, more than in any of his previous three seasons on the squad. His speed and ability to create separation off the line have made him one of Leonard’s favorite targets. Memorable catches include beating single coverage for an 81-yard burst against Northwestern and his Randy Moss-like grab over Kansas cornerback Cobee Bryant.

With wideout Jalon Calhoun, Duke’s leading receiver, questionable for Saturday, it is imperative that Pancol makes his mark against a North Carolina secondary that has floundered. North Carolina’s passing defense, ranked 124th in the nation, allowed 496 passing yards to Miami. If Pancol can ghost his defender and glide into open space, the Blue Devils could be ringing the bell to celebrate when the clock strikes midnight.


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