It’s the final week of the 2010 football season, as the Blue Devils (3-8, 1-6 ACC) host the rival North Carolina Tar Heels (6-5, 3-4 ACC) in Wallace Wade Stadium. The game will kickoff at 3:30 PM ET and will be televised on ESPNU. Tickets for the rivalry game are still available from
GoDuke.com, as the Blue Devils try to reclaim the Victory Bell for just the second time in the last 20 tries.
DUKE IN WEEK 12
Duke fell at Georgia Tech last Saturday, 30-20, in what Coach Cutcliffe called “a tough pill to swallow.” The Blue Devils’ defense held the Yellow Jackets out of the end zone for the entire first half, taking a 13-6 lead into the locker room. In the second half, the momentum quickly turned towards Georgia Tech after Brandon Connette threw a red zone interception, which was returned 85 yards for the touchdown and a 16-13 lead. The Blue Devils fought back in the 4th quarter, as Sean Renfree found Austin Kelly on a play action pass for a 37-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 23-20, but it was not enough. The Yellow Jackets’ option offense wore down the Duke defense and sealed the victory. On the day, the Duke defense allowed 320 rushing yard to the #1 rushing offense in the country, which was led by Anthony Allen and Tevin Washington. For the Blue Devils, Renfree threw for another 300+ yard game in the loss, including 92 yards to Cooper Helfet and 7 catches each for Conner Vernon and Donovan Varner.
NORTH CAROLINA IN WEEK 12
If the Blue Devils’ loss last week was tough to swallow, North Carolina’s was devastating. The Tar Heels hosted rival NC State last Saturday and fell, 29-25. North Carolina jumped out to a 7-0 first quarter lead, which they extended to a 19-10 lead by late in the 3rd quarter. At that point, the game went an unexpected and almost instantaneous reversal of momentum, as Russell Wilson and the Wolfpack scored 17 unanswered points to close the 3rd quarter and start the 4th. The first score was the most unlikely, as Wilson threw a jump ball on 4th and goal to a crowd in the back corner of the end zone, which somehow fell into the hands of TE Owen Spencer for the touchdown. After forcing a quick punt, explosive returner T.J. Graham took the punt return 87 yards for the score and a 24-19 lead. The Wolfpack would add on a FG and a last-minute safety to seal the 29-25 victory. Seniors T.J Yates and Anthony Elzy led the way for the Tar Heels in the loss, as Yates threw for over 400 yards, including 178 and a touchdown to Elzy.
Both teams find themselves in the red in the turnover margin for the season. Turnovers have haunted the Blue Devils throughout 2010, while North Carolina has given it away 7 times in their last two games. Last week, Duke saw firsthand how a key turnover can propel a team to victory. Without leading fumble recovery man Kelby Brown, the Duke defense will have to find other players to step up with takeaways.
Without crunching all the numbers, let’s just say in last week’s games, both teams were on the losing side of key explosive plays. Georgia Tech scored three touchdowns, two of which were explosive plays: an 85-yard interception return and a 79-yard catch. In the Tar Heel’s last game, the decisive play was a T.J. Graham 87-yard punt return for a touchdown, which gave the Wolfpack the lead for good. With 2 of the ACC’s top 3 quarterbacks, both teams have the ability to rack up explosive plays on the opposing defense. Renfree will have to get things going with Vernon, Varner, Kelly, and Helfet early and often, while the Duke secondary will have to contain Yates and his receivers, led by the trio of Dwight Jones, Anthony Elzy, and Erik Highsmith.
Sacks haven’t had a huge influence on the Blue Devils’ games this year, as Duke has been very good at protecting Sean Renfree, while the Duke defensive front has struggled to bring pressure. Conversely, the Tar Heels rank last in the ACC in sacks allowed, as Yates has found himself on the ground an average of 3 times per game, including 7 times last Saturday. UNC’s defense has failed to bring the pressure it did a year ago, when they ranked second in the ACC in sacks per game.
3rd Down Production
Would you be surprised to learn that the struggling Duke defense has done a better job on opponent 3rd downs than their rivals in Columbia blue? It’s true, and the Blue Devils’ offense has also done a better job converting on 3rd downs. On paper, advantage Duke.
Would you also be surprised to know that as of last week, North Carolina has surpassed Duke as the ACC’s worst rushing offense? The Blue Devils’ have Nate Irving and the NC State defense to thank for that. After a season-ending injury to Johnny White, the Blue Devils will have to focus their defensive efforts on Anthony Elzy and Shaun Draughn in the North Carolina backfield. In last week’s preview, we stressed the importance of the Blue Devils’ scoring on the ground. The Tar Heels have only allowed 9 rushing touchdowns this year, but Brandon Connette and the Blue Devils’ backs will have to find ways to convert in the red zone for Duke to shed its two-game losing streak.
Will Snyderwine had been nearly automatic in 2010, but missed two late FGs in Atlanta last week. Expect the Blue Devils’ kicker to have a bounceback game in the season finale. Casey Barth has been equally good for the Tar Heels, and the team that does a better job of putting the ball in the end zone, rather than through the uprights, is most likely to win this one.
Duke has done a nice job of minimizing penalties in 2010, though the few penalties they have committed have often been costly. Against Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils committed 6 penalties for a total of 50 yards, but several of those helped to extend Yellow Jacket drives. North Carolina’s inability to follow the rules off the field has been well documented, but the Tar Heels have also committed an average of 7 penalties per game. They’ve improved this statistic in recent weeks, totaling just 70 yards in penalties their past two games.
It is difficult to remain objective when it’s Duke vs. North Carolina. The Tar Heels are admittedly exhausted: mentally, from having faced tough questions all season about their wrongdoings off the field; and physically, from playing shorthanded while not having a week off since their bye in week 2. In the back of some players’ minds, the Tar Heels are just one game away from the end of this nightmare regular season. After an emotional loss to rival NC State on senior day, can the Tar Heels get back up for one more game?
Meanwhile, the primary question that has haunted the Blue Devils in 2010 is “what if…?,” as they’ve watched ACC games slip away against Wake Forest in week 2, Maryland in week 5, Boston College in week 11, and Georgia Tech in week 12. Can the Blue Devils breakthrough this week against the rival Tar Heels? If this year’s senior class has its way, the Blue Devils will be ringing the Victory Bell into their offseason.