It is often said that records don't matter in rivalry games and that is certainly the case with regards to North Carolinaand Duke. On the basketball court, many times the lower-ranked team has hung in the game and even won. This past Feb. 8, 19-3 Duke survived with a two-point overtime victory over the 10-12 Tar Heels.
The same holds true on the gridiron. Carolina holds a sizeable series edge and usually has more talent. But 12 of the last 18 battles between the schools have resulted in one-score games, including last year's 20-17 Carolina win in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina (4-2, 4-2 ACC) has had problems on the road this season, losing at Florida State and last Saturday at Virginia while narrowly escaping defeat at Boston College. At 2-5 (1-5 in ACC), the Blue Devils have struggled most everywhere this season though they beat Charlotte 53-19 in their most recent game.
North Carolina at Duke
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: North Carolina -10
When North Carolina Has the Ball
Sam Howell was not the problem in Carolina's 44-41 loss to Virginia last Saturday. The sophomore quarterback was 23 of 28 for 443 yards and four touchdowns without an interception. Eleven of those 23 completions went to Dyami Brown for a total of 240 yards and three scores. Howell and Brown are definitely on the same page with 18 connections for 345 yards in the past two games.
In reality, the offense was fine. UNC scored 41 points and compiled 536 yards of total offense in Charlottesville. But Howell was sacked five times and a running game that was averaging 249 yards per game only went for 93. Those point to issues along the offensive line that need to be cleaned up by this Saturday.
That's because Duke has two defensive ends – Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje – that can blow up opposing offensive lines. The two share the national lead with 7.5 sacks each. Sophomore linebacker Shaka Heyward also is a disruptive presence, leading the team in tackles and checking in with a couple of sacks. Duke's defense ranks seventh in the ACC in rushing, passing, and total defense and is eighth in scoring defense. So they are not bad, but if Carolina's offense can avoid the negative plays, the Tar Heels should be able to gain yardage and score points.
When Duke Has the Ball
Don't turn the ball over. It's really that simple. The fewer times you give the ball to the other team, the more successful your offense will be. But the Blue Devils just can't get out of their own way. Their 10 fumbles lost is tied for the most by any team and the 13 interceptions thrown by their quarterbacks is a total surpassed by only Mississippi State. As a result, their 23 total giveaways are far and away the most by any team in America.
Considering the opportunities squandered, the offense isn't half bad when they keep the ball. Running backs Deon Jackson and Mataeo Durant have combined for more than 1,000 rushing yards already this season and Noah Gray, Jake Bobo, and Jalon Calhoun all have at least 20 receptions. Quarterback Chase Brice, though, has completed just 55 percent of his passes with 11 picks and is averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt. He's also been sacked 24 times, so much of the blame has to be placed at the feet of the offensive line. Led by the running game, Duke's offense was much better in the blowout of Charlotte, but Brice's numbers were still less than stellar.
Fortunately for the Blue Devils, they're not facing a defense that has had a lot of takeaways this season and they also haven't had that many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Chazz Surratt is an All-ACC linebacker and Tomon and Tomari Fox can cause headaches. But the unit as a whole has been wildly inconsistent. The Tar Heels shut down Syracuse and controlled both Boston College and NC State. But Virginia Tech and Virginia both topped the 40-point mark on Carolina and Florida State scored 31 points in a single half.
There is no greater example of North Carolina's defensive inconsistency than their rush defense. In the games against the Orange, the Eagles, and the Wolfpack, UNC allowed an average of 47 rushing yards per game. However, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Virginia gashed the Heels for an average of 237 yards on the ground. If Duke wins this game, it will be because the Blue Devils ran the ball effectively.
Even with few people in the stands at Wallace Wade Stadium, tensions will be high in Durham this Saturday. It's Carolina-Duke and the Victory Bell is at stake. In this game, Duke will protect the ball better and UNC will shore up its run defense. The difference will be Sam Howell and his receivers. The Tar Heels will stay alive in the ACC race by taking down their archrival.
Prediction: North Carolina 37, Duke 23
— 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.