The Tar Heels (5-2, 2-1) and Blue Devils (5-2, 2-1) last met in October in 1938 and last played this early in the season on Oct. 16, 1926. These two rivals, separated by an eight-mile stretch of U.S. 15-501, had played in the season finale in 63 of the previous 68 years.
Not this year. And Duke head coach David Cutcliffe doesn’t seem to mind the schedule adjustment.
"Since I've been here, we've had two home games against [UNC] and our students were gone," Cutcliffe said. "It's been on Thanksgiving weekend. We didn't have very many people. I know that traditionalists don't like that, but I'm all about getting an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd."
The irony involved is that the long-played season finale matchup rarely carried much significance for both teams involved. Saturday’s contest, however, pairs a Duke team looking to become bowl eligible for the first time since 1994 and a North Carolina looking to take over the top spot in the Coastal Division standings.
The Tar Heels have won 21 of the last 22 meetings with the Blue Devils, but the games have been competitive over the past decade. Of those 10 meetings, seven were decided by eight points or less.
Even so, the Victory Bell has remained in UNC’s possession for all but one season since 1990.
“We’ve seen the victory bell in our color for a really long time and we don’t want to give it up,” UNC running back Gio Bernard said. “We don’t want to be the team to give it up.”
Bernard is one of the primary reasons that North Carolina is a 10.5-point road favorite. The Davie, Fla. product is 95 rushing yards shy of 2,000 for his career, which would move him into 11th place in school history.
Bernard is averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game, good for seventh nationally. The more pertinent statistic for the Tar Heels is that they are 5-0 with the red-shirt sophomore in the lineup this season.
"Numbers are one thing, being able to play and being able to win is another thing," Bernard said. "Coach [Larry] Fedora has stressed winning is what this program is about. That's what I want to do. The numbers are just another thing."
Duke ranks 58th nationally in run defense (149.7 ypg) and 64th in total defense (394.0 ypg), although the Blue Devils have been exposed on the ground in recent weeks. Their last three opponents combined for 622 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns, including Virginia Tech’s 269 yards on the ground last Saturday.
Helping North Carolina’s cause is Duke’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme – the same approach that UNC utilizes.
“When you’re game planning, you have some familiarity, you know how you want to attack it because you work against it all year long,” Fedora said. “But on the other side defensively, you see similar things, so you know how they’re going to attack you.”
Duke’s offense is predicated on an efficient passing game, which has become Cutcliffe’s standard operating procedure. The Blue Devils’s rank 25th nationally in passing offense (291.3 ypg), led by quarterback Sean Renfree (141-of-201 passing, 1,517 yards, 10 TD, 6 INT) and wide receivers Conner Vernon (45 catches, 625 yards, 5 TD) and Jamison Crowder (46 catches, 588 yards, 4 TD).
Renfree ranks 38th nationally in passing efficiency (144.0), while UNC quarterback Bryn Renner (146-of-233 passing, 1,830 yards, 15 TD, 5 INT) is just five spots ahead with a 145.6 mark.
Cutcliffe and his offense will have to find a way to put points on the scoreboard against one of the ACC’s top defenses. North Carolina is only allowing 327.0 yards per game (22nd nationally), including 99.7 yards on the ground (14th) and 227.3 yards through the air (63rd).
The Tar Heels are giving up just 17.3 points per game, good for 22nd nationally.
The statistics, however, only mean so much in this Triangle rivalry that will be played for the 99th time on Saturday.
"It's a huge week," Duke defensive end Kenny Anunike said. "We're playing for that bell. And we're also playing for that sixth win that will make us bowl eligible. So a lot is on the table. There's no other game like Carolina. This is a huge rivalry."
Fedora stressed on Monday that the next game on the schedule is the most important, but acknowledged the importance of this game to the fan bases on Wednesday.
“It’s definitely a rivalry, there’s no doubt about it,” Fedora said.
A victory over the Blue Devils would give North Carolina its third win this season over Coastal Division opponents with two more opportunities (Georgia Tech, @ Virginia) remaining.
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