I said many times that with nothing to fight for in the post season and not being able to win the division that the biggest challenge for the coaching staff might have been keeping the team motivated throughout the first season of head coach Larry Fedora at the helm of UNC football. But that goes all out the window when it comes to North Carolina (5 & 2 ~ 2-1 in the ACC) going eight miles down the road to take on Duke (5 & 2 ~ 2-1 in the ACC) at Wallace Wade Stadium. This game, which will kick off at 7:00 p.m. EST, will be televised on ESPNU, should mean a heck of a lot for both programs and in no way should it be shadowed by the fact that the two colleges are labeled “basketball schools”. The game will also be on the Tar Heel Sports Network, with Jones Angell (play-by-play) and Rick Steinbacher (color analyst) calling the game.
For a team like Carolina, who will not be able to hold up any hardware due to the NCAA sanctions, this game will give them the chance to keep the hardware from the UNC/Duke rivalry… The Victory Bell. And while most of the talk is about basketball when it comes to these two programs, they first met one another on the football field 124 years ago and have been playing one another each year since 1922. This is a rivalry, even if it’s been a lopsided one with UNC having won the game eight times in a row and 21 of the last 22. In Durham it seems that coach Cutcliffe has been turning the program around, but not when it comes to this rivalry as he is 0 and 4 versus UNC.
But there is still plenty of more motivation for the UNC football program when it comes to this game. As I said before, both these squads have five wins on the season, and I doubt that the Tar Heels want to be the team that gets the Blue Devils back into a bowl game after an 18 year absence. I doubt anyone, be it the team or the fan base, could digest that in the year they can not play in the post season they would be the one giving their rivals the win to let them go bowling. If that is not motivation enough I am not sure what can be!
As usual, here are my keys to this game:
Penalties. The Tar Heels have had two less penalties called against, fifteen each, in the last two games than the Blue Devils have had in the games where they have been most penalizied. Sooner or later this is going to catch up with them, and then we are all going to wonder how come such a high octane offense could not get it done. With quarterback Bryn Renner in control of the aerial attack and tail back Giovani Bernard going stronger and stronger since being back from his injury, the last thing that anyone that dons the carolina blue wants is to have a long gain, be it through the air or on the ground, be called back because of a penalty.
Take control of the Game. The Blue Devils took a physical and mental beating in their 41-20 loss to the Hokies. After going up 20-0 to VaTech they just could not hold back the 41 point wave that hit them. The thing that North Carolina needs to do is to ride that same wave and keep the momentum against Duke going. This means that UNC needs to go with the running of Bernard and get to the end zone early and often, taking any thought that Duke might have of making this a game fade away before the end of the half.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Blue Devils do have some talent on this team, but on the flip side there is not doubt that the Tar Heels have more talent on their side. The last thing that coach Fedora wants is to do is to get into a tight game late in the fourth quarter against a rival that has not won against his program in a long time and is in need of their sixth win of the year.
Duke’s biggest threat is its receving core. If UNC can keep running the ball like they have in the last weeks, keeping control of the momentum and the game clock is the easiest way for North Carolina to keep Conner Vernon, Desmond Scott and the others off the field. Wearing down the Duke’s defense and keeping their offense on the side lines is definitely a winning formula for the UNC football team.
Go Gio Go. Yes, once again this is part of my keys, and if you have watched what the red shirt sophomore tail back has done you would have to agree with this. Duke could not stop a freshman back that was averaging less than 25 yards per game for Virginia Tech, sense would have it they are going to struggle mightily in trying to contain someone like Bernard, who leads the conference in rushing yards (even if he missed two games). Last year the tail back gained 165 yards and scored once versus the Blue Devils, there is no reason that he can not repeat (if not surpass) those numbers tonight. And if he does this is going to be a long, long night for the Blue Devils.
I truly believe this is going to be a good game, maybe not a close one, but a good one, where UNC finds a way to take advantage of Duke on both sides of the ball and is able to win this one by about the same type of score as Virginia Tech. The Las Vegas odds makers have Carolina as a 10 points favorite and I see the Heels winning this one by the final of 41 to 27, making Duke wait another week in order to try and be bowl eligible.
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