Duke's football program is enjoying a major resurgence this fall, winning three ACC games for the first time in years and putting themselves in position to compete for a bowl game for the first time since 1994.
While the Blue Devil defense has been respectable, much of the credit for the team's success this fall has to go to senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who is currently second in the ACC in passing yards (2,315), passing yards per game (289.4) and total offense (296.4) behind only Florida State's Christian Ponder, who lit up North Carolina in its last home contest a couple of weeks ago.
In all, Lewis has started 42 out of the last 43 games at quarterback for Duke going back to the 2006 season, and he's been playing like a crafty veteran all season, throwing just four interceptions against 15 touchdown passes.
"I will tell you that Duke is, as their record speaks, they are a dramatically improved football team. David Cutcliffe has done a great job generating offense. They know how to attack defenses," said UNC head coach Butch Davis. "Thad Lewis is playing extremely well throwing the ball. You can see evidence every single snap of his growth and development, the decision-making that he's doing."
"Their stats obviously speak very highly for how explosive their offense has been. I mean, they've been able to move the ball on just about everybody they've played," Davis continued.
While Lewis is a 'pass first' kind of quarterback, he has shown occasional ability to get outside the pocket and run.
He has three rushing touchdowns on the season and 56 net yards, including a high-gain of 21 yards, so UNC will have to respect his legs when the two teams take the field on Saturday.
"They get big chunks in the passing game, and the thing that makes them extremely dangerous is Thad Lewis, that he can extend plays when protections break down or on design they can use him on quarterback draws," said Davis. "They can get him outside the pocket and he can run, and he's very dangerous. He can keep drives alive."
"I know that he (Lewis) is a good quarterback," said safety Deunta Williams. "He's going to do whatever he has to do to win the game, and I've seen that on film."
"I really like his game. I like his game a lot," Williams added. "He has enough athletic ability that when the play breaks down he can make plays with his feet, but he's not looking to do that. He's always looking downfield and trying to throw deep bombs."
"They do run the football, although maybe not traditionally, because the quarterback, his ability to get them in some of those second and third (and short) down situations, and him running lead draw, or him just scrambling around breaking containment, it's enough of a threat that you always have to honor what they're doing running the football," said Davis.
"He (Lewis) is making good decisions," he continued. "You can just see the dramatic difference one year later in an offense has made just in his decisions to throw the ball."
Davis and the UNC players compared Lewis both to Ponder and Virginia Tech's Tyrod Taylor for his combination of escape ability in the pocket along with his ability to throw frozen ropes to his receivers whether stationary or on the run.
"It's somewhat of a similar challenge with Tyrod Taylor in the fact that he's a multi-dimensional quarterback, but he's throwing the ball extremely well, and this will be a big challenge for our football team," Davis said.
"I thought Thad was a good quarterback last year, but this year he's definitely made strides, I think," said Williams. "I like his arm. I like his mobility in the pocket. I think his pocket presence---when I was looking at film, these guys (Duke's offensive line), they've given up sacks---but his pocket presence, I don't want to say it's like Tyrod Taylor, because Tyrod does a great job of escaping and stuff like that."
"But there was one play in particular against Virginia, the (UVa) defensive end rushed upfield, and he (Lewis) kind of looked like Tyrod," Williams added. "Tyrod sees that gap and explodes through it, and that's what Thad did. His pocket presence and also his release and his mechanics as a quarterback I think have gotten a lot better."
"If you were going to find a comparison, I would say that Florida State is a pretty good comparison among the opponents we've played thus far," said Coach Davis of Lewis and the Duke offense. "This passing attack, it's got an awful lot of Indianapolis Colts concepts and ideas and philosophies built into it."
"They're going to get in 'trips.' They're going to get in 'doubles.' They're going to utilize the tight ends and the backs, and they're going to try to get the ball in the hands of guys in certain isolated areas that can give them a chance to make plays," Davis added.
"Thad's good. He's real good," said quarterback T.J. Yates. "He's extremely smart guy. Obviously he's a veteran. He's been around for a long, long time."
Yates got an opportunity to spend time with Lewis this past summer at the annual Manning Camp for collegiate quarterbacks, and they two got to know each other talking football.
"I kind of caught up with him over the summer at the Manning Camp, and we talked a lot about football---a lot about their offense and a lot about our offense---kind of just bouncing ideas off each other and stuff like that," Yates said.
Yates, like Coach Davis, has been impressed with Lewis's decision-making thus far this season.
"I was watching some of his game on the TV, and he seems to have it all together," he said. "He always knows where he's going with the ball and what defenses he's looking at."
Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe's philosophy is to try and isolate receivers in favorable matchups and wide-open spaces on the field, which makes it difficult to run certain 'zone' pass coverages against them.
"What they're doing in the passing game, they're spreading the field," said Davis. "They really try to isolate the receivers on certain people. They've got a scheme and a philosophy of the way in which they try to throw the football, and it picks on people. It picks on zones."
Coach Davis has been impressed with Duke's receivers on film, as they run precise routes and rarely have miscommunications which can result in timing errors and jogjams in certain areas of the field.
They're also good at improvising.
"The one thing I've been very impressed with, their receivers, they run adjusted routes extremely well," said Davis. "If it's against a zone, they know exactly where to sit down and be in the open holes. If it's against man (pass coverage) they do a great job of rubbing guys off."
"You don't see them making receiver mistakes where a receiver is confused or you've got two guys sitting in the same area or you get guys all clustered up. They're pretty crafty about the way in which they throw the ball," Davis continued.
Lewis likes throwing the ball around to a multitude of different receivers, as Duke has a total of seven players with at least 11 catches on the season.
Having many receivers to depend on will make it more challenging for North Carolina's secondary and linebackers, as they won't be able to afford to roll coverages and focus on one or two particular players.
"They're playing quite a few guys, and they get the ball in the hands of a lot of people. I think that's by design. I'm sure that's the way in which David would like for the offense to operate," Davis said. "It's a lot easier to play pass defense if somebody has just got one guy. I mean, if he's the go-to guy and he's getting 90 catches and everybody else has got five, you can load up coverages. But this (Duke's style) makes you have to defend the entire field."
"Really what I think he (Lewis) is going to do is 'nickel and dime' us down the field," said Williams. "He does a great job of cross-reading and everything like that, and working his progressions as the play goes along, and as the play breaks down, making plays with his feet sometimes."
"I think the major thing is when we're in zone coverage, the back-side corners---Thad may be looking to his left---so the right corner definitely has to not slip up and not go to sleep a little bit because he (Lewis) works his progressions so well. He can come all the way across the field and hit that guy on the 'out' route or whatever."
One thing that can surely help the Tar Heels in their efforts to slow down Lewis and rattle him a little bit is by getting some pressure on him and taking him to the ground a few times.
In addition, the secondary needs to play lights-out coverage and not allow the 'underneath' areas over the middle of the field to be uncovered.
"What we've got to do is get D-line pressure on him (Lewis) and underneath coverage people be where they need to be, and those guys over the top just need to lock up, I think," said Williams.
"We've just got to put pressure on him. We can't let him sit back there and throw," said defensive tackle Tydreke Powell. "He's not as fast as Tyrod Taylor last week, but we just can't let him sit back there. You've got to put pressure on him because they can throw the ball real well."
"We've got to do what we do a lot better," said Davis. "We've watched the film, and our kids know that this is a dangerous football team. They're gifted. They're talented, and they didn't get to be 5-3 and 3-1 in the conference by accident."