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Scouting the opponent: Duke football will have its hands full against explosive North Carolina offense

DeWayne Carter celebrates against North Carolina during Duke's 2021 loss in Chapel Hill.
DeWayne Carter celebrates against North Carolina during Duke's 2021 loss in Chapel Hill.

Regardless of the sport, games between Duke and North Carolina are always marquee matchups. That being said, Saturday night's contest between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in Wallace Wade Stadium might be one of the best ones we have seen in a while. North Carolina is coming off of a tight 27-24 win against Miami, while Duke will be looking to turn its momentum around following an overtime loss to a Georgia Tech team that has been surprisingly hot following the firing of its head coach. 

To say the Tar Heels have been hot this year would be an understatement. They have won two straight after a loss to Notre Dame in late September and are sitting at a controlling 5-1 on the season. The main driver of North Carolina’s dominance has been its offense. It has averaged 42.3 points per game, the eighth-most of any FBS team. In fact, the Tar Heels have scored 56-plus points in two games so far this year, and 41 in another. In other words, they have not had much of a problem putting the ball in the end zone.

A lot of North Carolina’s offensive firepower comes from freshman quarterback Drake Maye. Despite his youth, he has struck fear into the hearts of defenses all across the ACC. Maye has the third-best passing efficiency rating in FBS this year at 185.05 and is the only freshman in the top 40. 

Maye’s ground game is not to be scoffed at, either. He has put up a modest but respectable 51.3 rushing yards per game. Combine that with 317.2 yards per game in the air and the Tar Heel signal caller is looking to be a bonafide FBS star for years to come. 

"We've got to find a way to get stops,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said in his Monday media availability. “That is going to involve containing [Maye] and not allowing him to get outside the pocket and create plays with his feet. … We have to find a good plan to contain him and limit his explosives.”

Elko is a defensive specialist and has experience scheming against elite SEC pocket talents from his time as the defensive coordinator of Texas A&M. But at the end of the day, it will be up to the players on the field to get stops and keep the Blue Devils in the game. Otherwise, the offense will have little chance no matter how well it plays.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tar Heels have been weaker. They have conceded 32 points per game, including a shootout in which North Carolina gave up 61 points to Appalachian State and a 45-32 loss at home to Notre Dame. The squad from Chapel Hill has struggled with its passing defense in particular, allowing 297.5 yards of passing per game and ranking at the bottom of the ACC in total defense. 

That being said, the Tar Heel defense has shown improvement in these past two weeks. It allowed 24 points Saturday against the Hurricanes and only 10 against Virginia Tech the week before that. 

“Defensively, they are a much-improved defense over the last two weeks. We have focused a lot of our attention on what they've become the last two weeks,” Elko said. “I think they've become a lot more physical, and they are getting a lot more comfortable in their scheme with coach [Gene] Chizik. I think he is starting to impose his philosophy on that group, and you have seen a team in the last two weeks in ACC play that has shown a markedly different style of defense.”

As Duke comes into what looks to be one of the most thrilling Tobacco Road football games in years, it will need its defense to come up big Saturday night. North Carolina is an offensive juggernaut led by a quarterback with a strong arm and a willingness to improvise with his legs when plays break down. If Duke fails to keep Maye under control, it will be in for a high-scoring affair that could send the Blue Devils on their first two-game skid of Elko’s tenure. 

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