“[Duke] had shown that they were one of the ten-best [passing] offenses in the country,” UNC head Butch Davis said. “When [Lewis] has time to throw and move around, and their receivers have time to find dead spots and open spots and rub people off on man coverage, they can pick you apart.
“I thought our defensive staff put together an outstanding game plan, and our players really executed it.”
That game plan held Lewis, who had been averaging 325.1 passing yards per game, to 113 yards on 16-of-33 passing and limited Duke to 125 total yards of offense – the fewest allowed by UNC this season. But ultimately, it kept the Blue Devils out of the end zone and gave UNC a 19-6 victory – its six straight over Duke.
For most of the game, UNC’s defense lined up in a nickel formation, as opposed to its normal 4-3 scheme. In all but a handful of plays, Melvin Williams entered as the extra defensive back and played free safety. Meanwhile, the normal free safety, Deunta Williams, was moved to strong safety and Da’Norris Searcy shifted from strong safety to nickel back.
“It started at the beginning of the year when I started in nickel and I had a good game at safety,” Melvin Williams said. “So the coaches decided to put me at safety [in the nickel package] and put Da’Norris at nickel [back], because Da’Norris played it last year at the Meineke Care Bowl and did a good job.”
From the nickel formation, the defense played some form of man coverage the entire game.
“[Duke] is very, very good at picking apart zone coverages,” Davis said. “They do a great job of finding dead zones and sitting down. Their receivers are very crafty [and] are very well coached. They’ll run a dig and you’ll see those guys stop right in the dead of a hole...
“[We were] just trying to jam guys, press guys – try to disrupt their timing so [Lewis] has to hold it that extra second that allows the rush to get there.”
In particular, UNC played a lot of man-free (cover-one) with Melvin Williams as the “center fielder” and the other four defensive backs manning up on Duke’s wide receivers.
“Everybody held their own [in man coverage] and knew they had help over the top for the deep ball,” Melvin Williams said. “But Duke didn’t try us a lot with the deep ball, so I could just run free out there. I was looking for double moves, slant-and-go’s – there were a lot of moves that we saw on film, but they didn’t run.”
Playing man coverage allowed UNC’s defensive backs – even its starting two safeties – to press their receivers at the line.
“I loved it, man,” Deunta Williams said. “I went down there and pressed most of the game and [Johnny Williams] and I were going at it all night.
“… I was on the phone making sure we were going to keep playing man, because as the game goes along you get a feel for the receivers and what they’re going to do and how they release. So the longer you play in that game you kind of dominate them a little bit more and I think that’s what we did [down] the home stretch.”
Man coverage also allowed UNC’s defense to blitz more than it has since Butch Davis arrived in Chapel Hill.
“We tried to get after them and not give them time to throw the ball,” linebacker Quan Sturdivant said. “[Lewis] is a good quarterback; if you give him time, he’s going to pick you apart so we tried to get some pressure in his face.”
From their film study of Duke, it was discovered that the Blue Devils had a difficult time picking up the blitz.
“We were watching teams sending simple blitzes and getting right through,” Robert Quinn said. “We tried to do the same thing to them and it seemed like it worked good tonight.”
In addition to Duke’s poor yard production, the constant pressure helped UNC record 14 QB hurries, three sacks, eight pass breakups, and two interceptions.
No one player’s stat sheeted benefited more from the extra pressure than Quinn. The sophomore defensive end had all three of the team’s sacks, six QB hurries, forced a fumble, and broke up a pass. He totaled seven tackles, including 4.5 for a loss of 34.