Duke and North Carolina each suffered a major setback last week in their quests for an ACC Coastal Division title. For Duke, who was 2-1 in the conference coming in, it was in the form of an absolute beatdown at the hands of Virginia. The Devils turned the ball over five times and the Cavaliers took advantage of every mistake in the 48-14 pummeling.
The Tar Heels suffered their fourth excruciating loss of the year and this one was probably the most painful. Not capitalizing on a million chances to win the game, Carolina fell in six overtimes to Virginia Tech. Sam Howell threw for five touchdowns, UNC’s backs ran for 148 yards, and the Heels won the turnover battle two to nothing. Still, Virginia Tech pulled out the victory.
In the fluid Coastal, Duke and North Carolina are still not completely out of the chase for the crown and securing wins for bowl eligibility is also big for both programs right now. So beyond the normal Duke-Carolina rivalry, this year's battle for the Victory Bell is for more than just for bragging rights.
Duke at North Carolina
Kickoff Saturday, Oct. 26 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: Raycom Sports
Spread: North Carolina -3.5
When Duke Has the Ball
Once again this past weekend, Duke quarterback Quentin Harris struggled when facing a quality defense. Against Virginia's particularly nasty D, Harris went 13 of 26 for just 88 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. This week, he'll battle a North Carolina defense that may not be elite but is certainly better than the lesser units he has feasted on so far this season.
The Tar Heels' biggest problem at this point is health, especially in the secondary. Patrice Rene was lost for the season earlier this fall and starters Myles Woolfolk and Trey Morrison are also battling injuries that have kept them out in recent weeks. The interesting thing is that the Heels have done a decent job defending the pass, though the last two opponents (Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech) have been teams with questionable quarterback situations.
Hokies quarterback Quincy Patterson burned Carolina with his legs and Harris also has that capability, but Duke also needs to get Deon Jackson going. The junior running back has not averaged more than four yards per carry in a game since the Blue Devils blasted Virginia Tech 45-10 back on Sept. 27. He has to emerge as more of a big-play threat because the top pass catchers, Jalon Calhoun and Noah Gray, are possession targets.
Most importantly for Duke, they must retain possessions. They gave the ball to Virginia five times and they are now tied for last in the ACC in turnover margin.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
The Heels are the opposite. They have only turned the ball over six times so far this season and rank third in the ACC in turnover margin. It starts with quarterback Sam Howell, who had another solid performance on Saturday. His completion percentage was down a bit, but the true freshman threw for 348 yards and five scores without a pick. On the season, Howell has thrown for 1,892 yards with 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions.
Carolina will be squaring off with a Duke defense that has done a solid job defending the run. In actuality, the Blue Devils have been good against the pass as well, so the best way to beat them is by doing a little bit of both. And that is exactly what Heels offensive coordinator Phil Longo likes to do. Along with Howell and his dynamite group of receivers, UNC has run the ball at least 36 times in each game with Javonte Williams and Michael Carter splitting most of the workload. Don't expect things to change this week.
Linebacker Koby Quansah is the leader of the Blue Devil defense, but Victor Dimukeje is having a huge season in his own right and has been a force in the last three weeks. The junior defensive end that had no sacks and just one tackle for lost yardage in the first four games combined for 6.5 sacks in the contests against Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, and Virginia. Carolina has allowed 25 sacks this season, so all eyes better be on Dimukeje.
After beating the Tar Heels only once in 22 years, the Blue Devils have claimed the Victory Bell five times in the last seven meetings. The key to making it six wins in eight tries is Quentin Harris. He has to be efficient and can't give the ball away while at the same time the Duke quarterback must make plays with both his arm and his legs. Duke will have success moving the ball and will score some points, but Harris will be harassed just enough and will make a key mistake. Carolina's offense will move the ball effectively most of the day and in another pressure situation late in the fourth quarter, true freshman Sam Howell will come through in a Heels victory.
Prediction: North Carolina 34, Duke 30
— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.