by Sharon Thorsland
North Carolina and Duke face off on Saturday in a game that has conference implications. No, we’re not talking about basketball (81-77 anyone?). Instead we’ve actually got a football game that matters. The Tar Heels (5-1) and Blue Devils (4-2) are both vying for first place in the Coastal Division. Right now the Heels are all alone atop the division, but a Duke win would put the rivals in a tie. Plus, the Victory Bell is on the line. Kick-off is set for 8:00 Saturday on WBT.
The Tar Heels picked up an impressive road win over Miami last week, with the defense playing arguably its best game of the season. Duke is coming off a close overtime loss to Georgia Tech, but the program is clearly on the rise under first year head coach Mike Elko. The Blue Devils were winless in the ACC last season, and have already exceeded last year’s win total.
Elko was an outstanding defensive coordinator before coming to Durham, and he has this Duke defense playing tough and aggressive. The Blue Devils rank 33rd in the country allowing 19.7 points per game, they’ve only given up four rushing touchdowns, and they’re tied for second in the nation with eight recovered fumbles. Star linebacker Shaka Heyward anchors the defense, which has 10 sacks on the season, 2.5 of those from senior defensive tackle Ja’Mion Franklin. Safety Darious Joiner leads the team in tackles and has an interception. They’ll face a UNC offense that is one of the best in the country, averaging nearly 40 points per game behind outstanding quarterback Drake Maye. The redshirt freshman is third in the country with 21 passing touchdowns.
Duke has its own outstanding quarterback in Riley Leonard. The sophomore can hurt you with his arm or his feet and has the ability to scramble and extend plays. Riley has thrown for 1,312 yards and eight touchdowns on the season, and he’s also rushed for 328 yards and four more scores. He teams with Jaylen Coleman and Jordan Waters to form a three-headed rushing attack. Coleman and Waters each have four scores and have combined for over 600 yards on the ground. They run behind a solid offensive line that is giving Leonard plenty of time to throw – the Blue Devils are tied for second in the ACC with just eight allowed sacks on the year.
With the run game taking priority, the Blue Devils are averaging just 225 yards passing per game. Leonard’s top receiver is senior Jalon Calhoun, while Eli Pancol is a big play threat averaging over 16 yards a catch. Tight end Nicky Dalmolin has two scores. Can this unit make some noise against the UNC defense that gave up an appalling 496 passing yards to Miami last week?
It’s not often both of these teams are good at the same time. Duke is undefeated at home this season, and UNC is 3-0 on the road. This game should be a fun one with so much riding on it – Coastal Division superiority, the Victory Bell, and good old bragging rights against your biggest rival. Plus, the Tar Heels would become bowl eligible with a win – and it’s only mid-October! Both of these teams have offenses that can move the football, so look for whoever plays the best defense to win this game.