A week ago Duke was heading into a big-time matchup with Virginia Tech with hopes of sealing the deal on a bowl for the first time since 1994. There was also a lot of talk about Duke’s chances of potentially winning the ACC’s Coastal Division and playing in the ACC
This is Conner Vernon’s last chance to beat North Carolina and bring the Victory Bell back to Durham.
Championship Game, especially if they won that game.
And while the odds makers clearly favored the Hokies many, myself included, felt that the Blue Devils had more than a good chance at upsetting Virginia Tech on their home field.
For one quarter it looked like it might just happen, but as Chinua Achibe wrote, Things Fall Apart, and for the Blue Devils they did indeed, to the tune of 41 unanswered points. After the game David Cutcliffe said his team had to put the emotional toll of the loss behind them and get better.
The big question is can they put the emotions of disappointment behind them and then channel a different set of emotions for a another big matchup, this time against their arch rival North Carolina.
Early odds again have Duke an underdog and why not? Duke is coming off an embarrassing loss to a team that North Carolina has already beaten and beaten badly. Then there is this little issue of recent history.
Duke hasn’t beaten the Tar Heels since 2003 and while a 8 year losing streak isn’t all that bad (consider Duke had a 12 game losing streatk to Wake Forest until this season) they have lost 21 out of the last 22 games. The two teams play every year so prior to 2003 Duke hadn’t beaten North Carolina since 1989 when Steve Spurrier was coach.
No one on the current Duke roster has beaten North Carolina and won the rivalry claming the Victory Bell. This will be Conner Vernon, Sean Renfree, Ross Cockrell and several other players last chance to do so. There have been close games and blow outs but for the better part of two decades the bell has remained in Chapel Hill painted the paler shade of blue.
History aside the odds still look long for the Blue Devils. They are beat up physically and emotionally, and though the injury report has gotten better, they have to prove the can put the bad loss to Virginia Tech behind them.
North Carolina has proven with its fast paced offense that they aren’t going to accommodate a defense and give them time to make changes. That is going to test the Blue Devils stamina on defense and with all the injuries it could be one of the more difficult challenges they’ve faced this season. And then there is the talent that the Heels possess.
Giovani Bernard is the best running back in the league, and quite possibly one of the best in the country. He ran all over a Virginia Tech defense that never allows big rushing games against them. He has rushed for 439 yard in the last two game alone.
The Blue Devils have been better this season against the run but haven’t been that strong and have allowed back to back 100 yard running games from Virginia and Virginia Tech running backs. Granted Duke did hold Virginia to two yards of rushing offense in the second half of their game, but Bernard is on a whole different level.
North Carolina also has big and fast wide receivers and a solid quarter back in Bryn Renner who has adequately adjusted to Larry Fedora’s spread offense. Ultimately though if the Tar Heels are smart they will try and beat Duke up with the running game, force them to play the run and then beat them long with the pass.
An easy sounding formula that very well could work unless Duke’s offense can muster up a resistence. To do that they have to rush for more than 22 yards like they did against Virgina Tech. The ability to run the ball has proven to take pressure off the Blue Devils primary passing attack.
The Blue Devils could potentially have to win a shoot out unless they can get a lead early and run some clock. North Carolina runs at a frenetic pace and will get a lot of possessions and ultimately a lot of points unless Duke can force turnovers and or three and outs.
Ulimately this is going to be a game that comes down to possession and it seems simple but it could be determined by who has more of them.
I really want to pick Duke in this game because I’ve liked what they’v shown so far this season and the growth they’ve made, but the mental effects from the loss at Virginia Tech combined with North Carolina’s talent have given me a lot of doubts.
So far this year I’ve only predicted Duke to lose one game (Stanford) and have been correct every week but last when I think I may have underestimated the Hokies. I don’t think I can make the same mistake two weeks in a row.
I look at North Carolina’s athletes, I look at their ability to score and run the ball and even though they are at times a sloppy, oft penalized team they have been able to compensate with that ability. Duke is much more talented than they have been in many years, but they also are lacking in experience when it comes to winning.
The Blue Devils have such little room for era and if they get down to North Carolina I’m not sure they will be able to get back up. I believe that Duke can win but it is going to take a complete effort. It is going to take an improvement in their running game and a better game from the offensive line.
It will take Conner Vernon and Sean Renfree making some plays and the offense in general taking care of the ball. It also will take the defense stepping up forcing stops and potentially turnovers and special teams avoiding big plays and potentially making some in the process.
Duke has come close to playing a complete game this season, but hasn’t really done it yet. Now would be a good team, but as good as North Carolina is and as high as they are after two big wins I’m just not sure it is in the cards for the Blue Devils this year.
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