North Carolina makes the short trip across 15-501 over to Durham Saturday evening to take on ACC Coastal Division and long-time in-state rival Duke in a key game with conference implications.
Both the Blue Devils and Tar Heels are 5-2 overall and 2-1 in league play, and the winner will end the night in first place in the ACC Coastal, either tied or outright.
For UNC, it's an opportunity to keep the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill for the eighth straight year after the Tar Heels took it back from Duke in 2004. The Blue Devils' 2003 victory in Kenan Stadium is the only time Duke has beaten Carolina on the gridiron in the last two decades.
Kickoff from Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday evening is at 7:00 pm on ESPNU.
IMPOSE THEIR WILL
The Tar Heels need to play this game with an attitude from the outset, and that mindset should be one of being the dominant team. Duke is good this season. The Blue Devils are 5-2, which is the same overall record as Carolina. But UNC does not have to play as if it is on equal ground as the Blue Devils. UNC can set a tone for the entire game from the very beginning by coming out of the locker room fast and physical.
Given the nature of the rivalry, the Tar Heels should have no problem whatsoever getting prepared mentally to play this game. Now they need to cut loose, as Coach Larry Fedora would say, and play the game. Have fun and have it at Duke's expense.
AIR IT OUT
Duke's defense has been improved this season, and for one quarter they completely shut down Logan Thomas and Virginia Tech's potent long-range passing game last week in Blacksburg. That same Hokies passing game that lit up the Tar Heels a couple times in Chapel Hill woke up in the second quarter last week and went on to overwhelm Duke through a flurry of big plays down the field. There were times in the second half of that ballgame where Duke looked truly incapable of slowing down the Hokies, and UNC can have similar success if Bryn Renner has time to throw and is hitting his mark.
For Carolina, nothing will erode Duke's initial surge of momentum more quickly than coming right out of the gate and hitting them with some big plays in the passing game. Erik Highsmith, Quinshad Davis, Sean Tapley, Eric Ebron, and perhaps even Giovani Bernard could any or all be in line for a big night through the air. Those five, combined with the other pass-catching options in Blake Anderson's arsenal, are a large load for Duke's secondary. This is a better Duke secondary, but Carolina should like its chances taking a few shots deep and throwing all over them.
WINNING THE LINE OF SCRIMMAGE
There is a tradition at UNC of controlling the line of scrimmage in this game, particularly with the offensive line. These guys need to use this game as the one in which they show just how far they have come since Fedora and his staff implemented the new schemes. Hustle to the line, get a play and execute it without committing penalties.
Starting left offensive tackle James Hurst said video of the last two games showed UNC's line with their hands outside the allowed area. So Carolina must work hard this week at eliminating this flaw while continuing to lock up and protect Renner. If the Tar Heels dominate the line of scrimmage with their offensive line, UNC will win this game and probably do so in impressive fashion.
MAKE DUKE WORK
On defense, UNC needs to make Duke work through long drives and beat them through extended marches from long lengths downfield. This means of course UNC can't afford to turn it over a couple of times in their own territory, but that's a given. The Tar Heels have to make sure that they've got their eyes on Conner Vernon all night and don't let him continuously break free like Michael Campanaro did at Wake Forest.
By slowing leading Duke receivers Vernon and Jamison Crowder down and keeping continuous pressure on Sean Renfree, Duke will have to win the game by trying to run more, which is an inviting prospect for a Carolina defense that is really doing a nice job stopping opposing running games (UNC currently ranks third in the ACC allowing just 99.7 rushing yards per outing), so if Duke is not getting 20 and 30-plus yard passing plays, they're going to have to grind it out.
Furthermore, force Duke to go 80 or more yards on drives. UNC has done a very nice job punting and covering punts, as they currently lead the ACC in net punting average. Keep that up, and on those possessions when UNC can't get into scoring range make sure you punt Duke back deep. As the header says, make them work. If Duke actually reclaims the Victory Bell with a series of deep drives from its own territory, they will have truly earned it. But it will be very, very hard for them to do that against a UNC defense that is improving weekly.
The Tar Heels should be as physical as than they have been in any game this season. Carolina has the chance to set the tone early and continually reinforce it throughout the afternoon. This begins with hard hits time and again. Do not leave one's feet early. On defense, stay balanced, keep one's feet on the ground and drive into the ball carriers and put them on the ground with a thud. When rushing the quarterback, hit him, hit him and hit him.
Don't rough him with dumb penalties, but if a Tar Heel cannot get there in time for an actual sack, then get the next best thing: a brutal hit on the QB just as he releases the ball. And if the quarterback runs, then punish him. Being physical is not enough, however. It will be important to wrap up Duke receivers and ball carriers. As much as possible, the Tar Heels should hold a meeting at the point of the ball, with as many tacklers as they can get there, on every Duke offensive play
TAKE AWAY THE MIDDLE
Carolina's strength, at least defensively, appears to be in the middle of the field with seniors and future pros Sylvester Williams and Kevin Reddick anchoring the front six in the 4-2-5 scheme. For Duke, if they're unable to consistently run the ball between the tackles, they're put in a position where they'll have to beat Carolina with more running back screen passes, bubble screens in the flats to the receivers, and other plays outside the hashes. These plays are capable of getting blown up readily by the Tar Heels if they know they're coming, and if Duke simply can't move it up the middle, UNC will know those plays are coming. In the running game if Duke has to run outside the hashes it gives the UNC defense more time to react and take pursuit lanes.
Simply put, it becomes a lot more challenging for Duke to win if they're unable to make things happen in the middle of the field, and in this particular matchup, it seems to lean in UNC's direction with the personnel they'll have on the field defensively. If Carolina does break down in this key area, and Duke's suddenly running between the tackles and successfully throwing the ball between the hashes, all bets are off.
The Tar Heels have improved their ability to sustain their concentration for longer periods of time this season. There would be no better time to be at their best with this attribute than in the next two weeks, first against Duke and then against N.C. State. This begins with leaving issues attached to people and events off the field. Then keep one's mind on the play at hand. Do not linger on good or bad plays, but move to the next one and perform it to the best of their ability.
This kind of alert mindset could prevent getting tricked, and Duke is almost surely going to have some tricks in its game plan. This approach will also help UNC to get the most from its new schemes and its physical talent. By staying on task and not getting caught up in anything not directly related to the current or next play, Carolina could attain a key mental edge that will obviously help them.
MAKE THE BLUE DEVILS MISS
Tackling, and especially forcing Duke to miss some tackles, could be a particularly huge element for UNC as they attempt to go out and assert its offensive dominance tonight. The Blue Devils have been much surer tacklers so far this season than in years past, but they're going to get tested big-time tonight by Bernard, who perhaps more than anybody else playing in the ACC has the unique ability to leave opponents flailing at air.
Carolina's receivers also need to do a good job of making Duke's linebackers and secondary be unsuccessful in bringing them down. This can be done in a number of ways. Fight and churn those legs like a running back for yards after a catch in traffic. Show off those moves and make a well-timed juke either down the sidelines or towards the goalpost when there's some open space. Put your shoulder down and try to run over somebody, or maybe even throw out a stiff arm if you're in a one-on-one situation with a defender. Do whatever it takes to force Duke's defense into arm tackles, half-tackles, and no tackles.
CATCH THE BALL
We all know that Renner is an accurate passer. He puts the ball in a good spot to be caught most of the time. So it is important each Tar Heel receiver is prepared to catch it when it comes to him. Do not rush to run with the ball and then drop the pass. Do not hear footsteps and drop it. A receiver is going to get hit coming across the middle, so he may as well catch the ball. The more Renner's receivers catch the ball, the tougher it will be for Duke to stop them. Bernard and his ability to run, catch, and make moves is a dilemma for defenses anyway. When Carolina's receivers makes plays, the defense's dilemma only gets tougher and tougher.
The bottom line is that balls are going to be there to be caught. UNC's offensive line is allowing the fewest sacks in the entire ACC (just four in seven games, just over one-half sack allowed per game), and although Duke is leading the ACC with 18 sacks, most of those sacks came against far inferior lines than Carolina's, which Mel Kiper rated the best in the nation earlier this week. Those guys are going to give Renner time to throw, and Renner will find the receivers in positions to make plays. The receivers have to make those plays, plain and simple.
Third downs are obviously always important, but in this particular game its even more significant for North Carolina to dominate the Blue Devils on this critical down. UNC has done a solid job so far this season converting 45.1 percent of its third down plays (third in the ACC), while Duke has been much less successful, converting just 33 percent of its attempts. The two schools are essentially tied coming in defensively on third down (UNC is allowing teams to convert 35.5 percent of third downs, Duke 35.9), but the one who can win it tonight will have a chance to seize a key strategic edge.
Naturally UNC is hoping offensively not to be in a lot of third down situations, and to be in a bunch of them on defense. It needs to be that way of course for the Tar Heels to have its best chance of giving the Victory Bell a brief tour in Durham before returning to its home in the UNC locker room. Duke can't win this game if they're not completing third downs offensively, whereas if they do so, as Wake Forest did when they beat UNC in Winston-Salem last month, that will give them momentum, field position, and scoring opportunities. It's a recipe that could make the game harder than it has to be for the Heels.