It’s been decades since this regular season finale between heated rivals separated by an eight-mile stretch of highway 15-501 has carried such significance. The last time these programs met with winning records was last season; the last time both finished with winning records was 1994.
The Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3 ACC) are favored by 5.5 points this weekend at Kenan Stadium, although the Blue Devils (9-2, 5-2 ACC) are 2-0 this season as road underdogs and 5-0-1 against the spread in their last six games.
Respect hasn’t come easy for a program that has secured its second winning season in 24 years. But while fans and media often struggle to look past the name on the jersey, UNC’s coaching staff are well aware of Duke’s body of work.
“There’s a reason they’re 9-2,” UNC associate head coach for defense Vic Koenning said. “There’s a reason they are where they’re at. It’s because they’ve got some good players and they’re doing a hell of a job.”
Head coach David Cutcliffe’s squad controls its own destiny in the Coastal Division. A win over the Tar Heels would clinch their first-ever ACC championship game appearance against No. 2 Florida State next Saturday in Charlotte. UNC can share the Coastal Division title with a win but loses out on all title game tiebreakers.
“They’re really playing good football,” UNC head coach Larry Fedora said. “Dave’s done a great job with them. They’re good in all three phases actually. They are very sound football team. They don’t make mistakes.”
While quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Sean Renfree dominated the headlines during Cutcliffe’s first five years in Durham, the rest of the team has earned recognition this fall. To illustrate this point, consider starting quarterback Anthony Boone’s recent stat line during a three-game stretch – 31-of-61 passing for 350 yards, seven interceptions and zero touchdowns.
Duke won all three games against Virginia Tech, N.C. State and Miami.
The Blue Devils rank fifth in the ACC in rushing yards (179.3 ypg), eighth in passing offense (239.4 ypg) and ninth in total defense (390.4 ypg). After posting a negative turnover margin through September, Duke is plus-0.67 in October and November.
The Tar Heels have also turned in their best play of the season during their current winning streak. UNC has become just the fifth team to start 1-5 and make a bowl game since the regular season expanded to 12 games in 2006.
UNC is averaging 44.0 points and 455.4 yards per game during those five victories, although last week’s record-breaking 80-20 win over Old Dominion skewed those statistics to some extent.
While Marquise Williams’s ascension to the starting quarterback role in place of injured Bryn Renner has played a critical role in UNC’s turnaround, Koenning’s defense deserves the primary credit.
After allowing their first six opponents to average 30.7 points and 455.8 yards per game, UNC has held its last five opponents to 18.0 points on 339.0 yards per contest.
Cutcliffe praised UNC’s defensive turnaround and offered his insight behind the recent success.
“People get healthier, guys are feeling good, you kind of get all your rotation in place,” Cutcliffe said. “They're playing a lot of people. They play very hard. I think that once you start playing well, your confidence builds. They've got experienced, good football players in all of the right places.”
As well as UNC’s primary two phases have played since the Miami loss on Oct. 17, the special teams unit has been instrumental of late, led by punt returner Ryan Switzer and his four returns for touchdowns in November.
“He's strong, he's fast, he's quick, he catches it very well,” Cutcliffe said. “So you really don't see a weakness. So we'd better be zeroed in.”
Duke ranks 111th nationally in punt return defense (12.7); Switzer ranks third nationally in punt return average (20.7).
A victory would give UNC its longest winning streak since 1997 and clinch a share of the Coastal Division title for the second consecutive season.