Can Duke find a way to slow down North Carolina RB Giovani Bernard? ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — When is a rivalry maybe not a rivalry? Perhaps it’s when one team has beaten the other in 22 of the past 23 meetings. That’s how it’s gone for North Carolina during its past 23 games against Duke. Since 1990, the Tar Heels have lost just once against the Blue Devils – and that defeat came in 2003.
Nonetheless, it’s North Carolina-Duke week, and the Heels have brought out the Victory Bell at practice.
Some things to know about the Blue Devils …
Duke: 5-2 (2-1 ACC, 1-1 Coastal Division)
Last time out: lost to Virginia Tech 41-20
Trending: Down. The Blue Devils built a 20-0 first-half lead at Virginia Tech, only to surrender 41 unanswered points in defeat. Duke’s next three: at home against UNC, then on the road at Florida State, then back home against Clemson.
The name to know: WR Conner Vernon is already the ACC’s all-time leading receptions leader, and he’s on pace to become the conference’s all-time receiving yards leader, too. Vernon leads Duke with 625 yards receiving and five touchdowns.
He hasn’t played his best against UNC – as I detailed here in this story today – but Vernon is among the most technically sound receivers in the conference, and he will challenge a Tar Heels secondary that also will be concerned with slowing down Jamison Crowder.
Other names to know: Crowder leads the team in receptions, with 46, and has 588 receiving yards. Senior QB Sean Renfree has completed 69.8 percent of his passes for 1,517 yards. Freshman RB Jela Duncan is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and has gained 265 yards rushing. Senior defensive lineman Kenny Anunike leads the team with six tackles for loss and five sacks.
Things about Duke that are of concern for UNC: The Blue Devils’ passing offense is good, with Renfree, Vernon and Crowder a solid quarterback-receiver trio. Duke is averaging 291.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 25th nationally. Defensively, the Tar Heels have been much stronger against the run than against the pass. UNC is allowing an average of 227.3 passing yards per game, which ranks 63rd nationally. But the Heels have intercepted twice as many passes (10) as ones they’ve allowed for touchdowns.
Things about Duke that UNC might feel good about: Duke’s run defense looked good at the start of the year but in the past three weeks the Blue Devils have surrendered 167 yards rushing at Wake Forest, 186 against Virginia and 269 against Virginia Tech. That’s not a good trend, and it has to be especially concerning for Duke given it will face UNC sophomore Giovani Bernard, whose two best career rushing performances have come during the past two weeks. Bernard leads the ACC in rushing, with 652 yards, despite missing two games.
Did you know: That Duke hasn’t beaten UNC at Wallace Wade Stadium since Nov. 19, 1988? (I was 7 at the time. Our Duke beat reporter, Laura Keeley, hadn’t even been born yet.)
Bottom line: This looked like a scary game for UNC while Duke was building that 20-0 lead at Virginia Tech. But then the Hokies scored the final 41 points of the game, closed out a 41-20 victory and left some serious doubts as to how good the Blue Devils really are.
Is Duke more the team that beat Wake Forest and Virginia, or the one that was blown out by Stanford and Virginia Tech? This week should provide us the answer.
The Blue Devils have enough talent on offense – especially at the skill positions – to beat UNC. But can Duke find a way to slow down Bernard and the Tar Heels’ rushing offense? If not, the result of this game isn’t likely to be different than what’s become the norm in this series during the past two decades.