Tar Heels aiming to continue Duke's slide
DURHAM — Intent on maintaining a chance of winning an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, North Carolina can't afford a hiccup Thursday night at Duke.
While the Blue Devils could put a big dent in the Tar Heels' title aspirations, there's a flip side when these rivals meet.
North Carolina might send Duke tumbling out of bowl contention when the teams collide at Wallace Wade Stadium (7:30 p.m., ESPN).
“It's about the next game, that's the only thing we can control is what we do in this game on Thursday night,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “That's where our focus has been. Let's get ready for this game.”
North Carolina (7-2, 5-1 ACC) has rattled off three consecutive victories, remaining in a first-place tie with Virginia Tech, which owns the tiebreaker on the Tar Heels.
Duke (3-6, 0-5), which is the only ACC team without a conference victory, holds a three-game losing streak going into its home finale.
“They could have very easily won all three of those games, there's no doubt about that,” Fedora said. “We don't really look at their record, that's not something that we pay attention to. We know we're going to get their best game and hopefully we're going to give them our best game.”
The Blue Devils have lost back-to-back games by three points.
“Obviously, everyone is well aware that we've played close football games all year long,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “We're 3-6 for a reason, you have to look at why.”
North Carolina played strong in most areas against Georgia Tech on Saturday coming off an open week on the schedule. The refreshed team now faces a different type of challenge.
“I think we have a good plan for short weeks,” Fedora said. “When you go a short week, it's more about making sure they're mentally fresh and their bodies are ready to go.”
North Carolina's high-powered offense is bound to be troublesome for Duke, which has been prone to yielding big-yardage plays.
Tar Heels senior receivers Ryan Switzer and Bug Howard both rank among the top seven in the ACC in receptions per game and receiving yards per game, helping quarterback Mitch Trubisky's soaring efficiency ratings.
“You have to be really good on third downs (on defense) against this team,” Cutcliffe said. “They're very difficult to defend anyway.”
Part of the key for Duke's defense could be the play of linebacker Ben Humphreys, a sophomore coming off a career-high 16 tackles against Virginia Tech.
North Carolina has benefited from running back Elijah Hood working through some midseason ailments. He racked up 168 rushing yards in the Georgia Tech game.
That type of balance has the Tar Heels in a good frame of mind.
“Plays are being made, and everybody is having a lot of fun out there,” Hood said.
Meanwhile, the Blue Devils have shown their coach a degree of resiliency.
“I'm real impressed with our team refocusing,” Cutcliffe said. “We try to teach the same whether we've won or lost.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones, who is from Charlotte, will play in this rivalry for the first time. He said there's no reason to let the past few Duke results bring about frustration.
“If we get emotional about it, it's not going to help,” Jones said.
North Carolina has won the last two meetings since Duke clinched the 2013 Coastal Division title by defeating the Tar Heels.
The teams play annually for possession of the Victory Bell, which is kept for a year by the winning team. North Carolina has captured 23 of the past 26 matchups.
For 27 Duke seniors, this is the last home game for a group that helped transform the program.
“They've won 30 games in their four-year career,” Cutcliffe said. “That's pretty special.”
But without a victory against North Carolina, the Blue Devils won't meet bowl eligibility, meaning a four-year streak of postseason play would come to an end.
This will be Duke's third game against a nationally ranked opponent in a four-game span. The Blue Devils have won four of their last 11 games against Top 25 opponents.
“They're going to give us everything they've got,” Fedora said. “I hope that we're prepared and we give them everything we've got.”