Duke makes the long road trip to Chapel Hill today looking to return home with the Victory Bell in tow, setting up a showdown with the Pitt Panthers next Saturday in Durham. North Carolina is a talented football team so the Blue Devils will need to play their very best in all three phases of the game to achieve the objective.
Skipping over the standard intangibles such as turnovers, in game injuries and bad calls by the officials (yes, I did just go there), how does Thomas Sirk, Jeremy Cash and company come away with the victory?
Here are the five keys to beating the North Carolina Tar Heels today on the road in Chapel Hill:
1. Win the Special Teams Battle
2. Stop Carolina's Run Game
3. Contain Quarterback Marquise Williams
4. Achieve Balance on Offense
5. Success on 3rd Down
Now that they've been listed, let's take a deeper look at the importance of each to the overall results which will unfold on the field this afternoon.
Win the Special Teams Battle
Let's not beat around the bush, Duke has been shaky at best on special teams at critical times this season. Northwestern running the 2nd half kick-off back for a touchdown, Will Monday shanking a punt that led to a Miami touchdown and 14-0 advantage last week, Ryan Smith fumbling a punt which denied Duke a final offensive possession in the loss to Northwestern and Ross Martin missing very makeable field goals the past two games being prime examples of miscues.
North Carolina has an excellent punt returner in Ryan Switzer so Duke's punt game will be especially important today. Duke's DeVon Edwards is one of the best kick return men in the country so Duke will need a strong game from him to provide good starting field position.
Achieving excellence on special teams is a precursor to winning the field position battle to set the team up for success.
Stop Carolina's Run Game
Elijah Hood is an elite running back who is averaging 6.2 yards per carry with eight rushing touchdowns. North Carolina will look to utilize Hood to execute a power running game to set up their passing attack. The Tar Heels have multiple excellent receivers who will exploit one-on-one coverage once the opponent commits an extra man, or two, to stopping Hood.
Duke must stop the Carolina run game without compromising pass defense. The Blue Devils defensive line has been very strong this season so in today's game they will need to bring their best effort and shutdown Hood and the Carolina run game.
Contain Quarterback Marquise Williams
Williams is extremely dangerous when allowed to extend plays. Duke must pressure him and keep him in the pocket forcing him to quickly pass the ball. When Williams scrambles he has the skill sets to hurt the opponent by running for 1st downs or finding receivers who have slipped open due to the extra seconds provided by Williams successfully eluding the pass rush.
Achieve Balance on Offense
Duke is at their best offensively when successfully running and passing the ball. Therefore it is important not to fall behind being forced to play catch-up. A primary objective for the North Carolina defense will be to turn Duke into a one dimensional offense.
Playing with a lead provides the offense with flexibility to mix up the play calling and keep the defense guessing. Duke will look to run and pass the ball to move the chains, while taking the occasional deep shot when down and distance is advantageous.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk has had limited success throwing deep so far this season due to overthrowing open receivers so today would be a great time for his timing to click. Carolina is yielding over 200 yards rushing per game so the opportunity to throw deep off of play action will certainly present itself.
Success on 3rd Down
This must take place on both sides of the ball! On defense, Duke must end possessions and get off the field. On offense, Duke must convert 1st downs to extend possessions and keep Carolina's offense on the sidelines. It sounds simple, but Carolina has the same two objectives. Whichever team is successful gains a significant advantage.
There it is folks, the five keys to Duke winning today's Rivalry Game and bringing the Victory Bell back to Durham.
Five Keys to Victory