Duke has work cut out against North Carolina

North Carolina and Duke are playing a prime time football game against each other Saturday night. This isn’t exactly the norm for this series.

The Tar Heels visit the Blue Devils at night for the first time ever in the series, adding intrigue to a series that rarely resonates outside of Tobacco Road’s deepest inner sectors.

And for that, this should be a pretty cool event. The game should be competitive. It sometimes is, even though UNC has won 21 of the last 22 meetings. Games in Durham, though, are always closer and more interesting because the Devils give the Heels their best effort. And this year, both teams are 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the ACC. It carries much more significance than usual.

Adding to the event is that this game was moved from its usual spot at the end of the schedule to the middle of the season, making it possible for Duke’s students attend. Many are not from the region, so they are not around in late November.

“I’ve said this all week long, first time that we’ve played North Carolina on a non-Thanksgiving Saturday,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “So, It’s the first chance since I’ve been here that our students will have an opportunity to go to this ballgame.”

The atmosphere surrounding Wallace Wade Stadium for hours before the opening kickoff should also be one of celebration, fun and friendly jabs without the intensity of a basketball game pitting the schools together just hours later. This will be a more lighthearted affair, at least in the crowd.

“I can’t wait,” said Raleigh, NC, native Jacob Sauer, a Duke fan for nearly 30 years. “Tailgating with Carolina fans as night approaches. A conference home game at night. UNC at night, at home? This is going to be fun.”

Sauer may not think trying to stop UNC tailback Giovani Bernard is so amusing by the end of Saturday’s contest Bernard has run for 262 and 177 yards, respectively, in UNC’s last two games, victories over Virginia Tech and Miami. The sophomore has helped the Heels amass more than 1,000 yards and 57 first downs versus the Hokies and Hurricanes.

Duke has its work cut out.

But it’s not just dealing with Bernard, UNC quarterback Bryn Renner and the Tar Heels’ bevy of fast and capable pass catchers. Duke’s own psyche could be its greatest obstacle going in.

The Devils owned a 20-0 lead late in the first quarter at Virginia Tech last Saturday and were three quarters away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time in 18 years and the bottom caved in.

As Duke was imploding, the Hokies were finding a running game that had been absent in just about every one of their games up to that point. The combination resulted in VPI rattling off 41 unanswered points leaving the Blue Devils on their knees, gasping for a sense of the air that fueled the first half of their season.

“The first thing, it may seem like a trick, but I always tell them the truth,” Cutcliffe said. “You know, and maybe that is a trick. They are used to me telling them the truth.

“I told them in Blacksburg in the locker room, as it turned out after I watched the film, pretty accurately, that I thought we did two things: We go out-fundamentaled when the game turned around and we got out-hit.”

If that happens against Carolina, the Tar Heels could put an even more decisive beating on the Devils than the Hokies did.

To suggest that will happen, however, would require forgetting everything Duke had achieved up to last weekend. That wouldn’t be wise, especially if the Heels don’t respect the Devils as much as they should.

First-year UNC coach Larry Fedora doesn’t so much as look at Duke as a rival as he does the next game. It’s coach-speak, but it’s how Fedora operates.

“The culture that we’re trying to create is that every game is the most important game,” Fedora said. “The next game is the most important game and it’s still about our preparation, our energy level. I’m hoping that our guys do exactly what we’ve done over the past few weeks.”

In UNC’s current four-game winning streak, the Heels have outscored their opponents 159-54, gained 35 more first downs and gobbled up 813 more total yards.

The excitement surrounding Saturday’s affair will be a part of the overall story, but in the end, the real news depends on Duke’s ability to defend the Heels enough to give its offense a chance to win.