It is a surprise that as Duke heads to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina on Saturday, the 3-1 Blue Devils are the team riding a wave of momentum. Duke has beaten Power 5 opponents in consecutive weeks, and while Kansas is far from a high-quality win, the Blue Devils dominated the second half en route to a 19-point victory a week after knocking off Northwestern.
North Carolina is certainly not going to look down on that Duke victory, especially after the Heels, who were favored by 12 points, fell to Georgia Tech 45-22. With two divisional losses in September, Carolina finds itself in a huge Coastal hole. In reality, the game against hated Duke — a rivalry that provides its own motivation — comes at the perfect time for a team that needs to refocus.
The Victory Bell game has been played 107 times, and North Carolina is 63-40-4 in the series, although the schools have split the last 10 matchups.
Duke at North Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 2 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -20
When Duke Has the Ball
In the first four games of the season, the Blue Devils have clearly developed an offensive identity. With Gunnar Holmberg taking over as the new starting quarterback, head coach David Cutcliffe entered the year hoping that the running game would be a strength, and so far things have gone according to plan. Mataeo Durant is the nation's third-leading rusher and as a team Duke is 13th in rushing offense. As a result, Holmberg has not been asked to do more than he is capable of doing.
That is not to say Holmberg can't throw. Jake Bobo is on pace for a 100-catch season and Jalon Calhoun has been a reliable option as well. The offensive line, along with opening up alleys for Durant, has also been very effective in providing Holmberg time to throw. Duke is No. 3 in the ACC in total and scoring offense, and while no one expects that to hold as the Blue Devils enter ACC play, it has led to the nice 3-1 start.
The Duke offense will be squaring off with a Carolina defense that comes in reeling after allowing 45 points and 261 yards on the ground last weekend. While the rushing total seems to be an aberration when looking at the other games they have played, so were the 553 passing yards Virginia put up the week before. That's the troubling part for UNC at this point. Opponents are moving the ball in whatever way they choose. Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims ran for 128 yards and three scores last week, and while Holmberg isn't that same type of athlete, he can move a bit. But the Duke offense is based around Durant, so coordinator Jay Bateman's defensive unit will have a singular focus when it comes to stopping the run.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
When analyzing the box score, Sam Howell looked like he had a decent day against the Yellow Jackets. He finished 25 of 39 for 306 yards and two touchdown passes while also rushing for another. But he also fumbled three times leading to 17 Georgia Tech points. Of course, not all of that is on Howell, as the offensive line had a horrendous game allowing eight sacks and got pushed around in the run game.
Something has to change. The Heels are last in the ACC and 123rd nationally with 17 sacks allowed in four games. For a unit as experienced as this group, that's not acceptable. Along with Howell, Ty Chandler is a quality back and Josh Downs has All-ACC skills. But the line needs to provide an opportunity for the Heels' skill talent to shine.
This week could be their opportunity to get back on track. Duke's 3-1 record is primarily the result of an efficient offense since the defense has struggled so far in 2021. Shaka Heyward is a stellar linebacker and safety Lummie Young IV has been disruptive, but the unit as a whole has allowed more than 400 yards in three of their four games. Kansas' 530 total yards were the most by a Jayhawks team in nearly two years, and in their season-opening loss to Charlotte, Duke was unable to stop the 49ers at the end of the game when they really needed a defensive stand.
While Duke will enter Kenan Stadium on a three-game winning streak, this is a bad matchup for the Blue Devils. Carolina's biggest issue offensively is a shaky offensive line. But the Devils don't have the talent up front to generate a consistent pass rush, and they have also had difficulties holding up against the run. Howell will have more time to throw this week and will put up big numbers. The Devils should be able to move the ball on offense, but they don't have the firepower to keep up with the Heels. Carolina's offense will explode and the Tar Heels will secure their third win on the year.
Prediction: North Carolina 52, Duke 27
Podcast: Complete Week 5 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— 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.