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Third and goal: Duke football will need to convert third downs to take down North Carolina

Riley Leonard completed 72% of his passes through the first five games this season.
Riley Leonard completed 72% of his passes through the first five games this season.

The Blue Devils return to competition at Wallace Wade Stadium for another leg of the Tobacco Road rivalry. As Duke prepares to take on North Carolina, the Blue Zone has three points to success:

Far and accurate passes

Coming off a game in which North Carolina gave up 496 passing yards to Miami, the holes in the team’s secondary are clear. This should prompt a field day for quarterback Riley Leonard and his receiving corps, as prior to last week, he had completed 72.0% of his passes for 9.4 yards per attempt. But the Blue Devils' passing prowess waned recently, dipping to a low of 48.8% and 3.3 yards per attempt against Georgia Tech last week. In close games, moving the ball downfield through the air is essential. If the Blue Devils can reignite their confidence in the passing game, they can create the opportunities needed for success.

It’s all about third

Under head coach Mike Elko, the Blue Devils have crafted a powerful offense this year. With strides in both the passing and run game, stopping them has become a struggle for nearly every defense—except on third down. Third-down attempts are one of Duke’s greatest weaknesses, as it has converted on only 38.4% of such attempts. As the Blue Devils’ offense marches down the field, their momentum is almost always lost on third downs they can’t convert on. Settling for punts and long field goal attempts won’t work against North Carolina’s high-scoring offense which is undoubtedly one of the best in college football, ranked No. 15 in converting at a clip of 48.6%. Duke will need big plays from its defense to stop this offense. By converting on their own third downs, and shutting down their opponent’s drives, the Blue Devils have a shot at defeating their rivals.

Clutch up when it matters

Duke’s two losses have been handed to it because of an inability to convert when it matters most. After trailing 28-13 against Kansas in the third quarter, Duke’s offense rallied in the fourth. Fueled by a 92-yard drive, followed by a 70-yard drive, the Blue Devils brought the game within reach of one score. With nearly two minutes left on the clock, Duke drove down the field from its own 5-yard line to Kansas’ 34-yard line. To send the game into overtime, they needed to score. But ultimately, they couldn't and lost the game by a turnover on downs.

Against Georgia Tech last week, Duke fought hard to send the game into overtime, overcoming a 20-6 deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter. After reaching the Yellow Jackets’ 19-yard line in overtime, they were held up by a crushing pass interference call that brought them out of scoring range, resulting in a loss. When the game is on the line, they need to convert and cut their mistakes. If they do so, they just might come out of Saturday night’s matchup with a big win.

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