The Battle for the Bell showcases one of the most bitter rivalries in college athletics before a nationally-televised audience in a primetime ESPN broadcast. Wait. This one’s not on the hardwood and doesn’t involve Coach K or Roy Williams? No, sir. This game will be played on the gridiron at Wallace Wade Stadium and features David Cutcliffe and Larry Fedora stalking the sidelines. For the first time, the two football programs will write another chapter in the Tobacco Road Rivalry on a Thursday night, in a meaningful ACC Coastal division showdown.
The Tar Heels are coming off a thrilling 40-35 victory over the Pittsburgh Panthers, while the Blue Devils suffered a disappointing 17-16 loss at the hands of the Hokies of Virginia Tech.
Thursday’s game will mark the 101st meeting between the two schools, with Carolina holding a 58-38-4 advantage in the head-to-head. Just like last year, the Tar Heels will be looking to spoil the Blue Devils’ hopes at a berth in the ACC Championship game opposite FSU’s Seminoles.
The Tar Heels rediscovered the offensive magic last week inside Kenan Stadium. After falling behind early, junior signal caller Marquise Williams directed the offense with impressive tenacity and got things clicking fast and furious. What’s more, injury-plagued receiver Quinshad Davis reemerged, snagging a few key passes to keep UNC drives alive. But probably the most positive development for offensive coordinator Seth Littrell was the hard running by TJ Logan. UNC has lacked much of a ground game all season long and would do well to run the ball effectively Thursday night against Duke.
As for the Blue Devils, their offense hasn’t been firing on all cylinders this year. But that’s not for lack of weaponry. Senior receiver Jamison Crowder has a knack for getting open and then dashing down the field for explosive plays. But can much-improved quarterback Anthony Boone avoid the critical mistakes and take care of the football in the bright lights of a national TV battle? His team ranks near the bottom of the conference pack in passing efficiency. But he has a trump card up his sleeve. Boone’s got the help of another solid offensive line that is giving up the fewest sacks of any team in the ACC.
UNC is not good in this department. Not good at all. It’s like a broken record this year. But what do you want me to say? The Tar Heels rank in the 100′s in the nation in nearly all defensive statistical categories. Let’s face it. In a given game, you can usually count on one hand the times a UNC player disrupts in the opposing quarterback in the backfield. Ouch. But, I will say this much – the unit, with as rough as it’s been at times, is opportunistic. On more than one occasion, the Tar Heels have come up big with timely turnovers and big stands deep in its own territory. They’ll definitely need a turnover or two to give themselves a chance at the upset in Durham.
Duke isn’t flashy on this side of the football, but in typical Blue Devil fashion, they get the job done. They’ve been especially vulnerable against the run this year, ranking tenth in the conference. But still, despite giving up plenty of yards between the 20-yard lines, Duke has been stingy inside the red zone. This ‘bend, don’t break’ unit held both Miami and Georgia Tech to under 30 points – no small feat. Coach Cutcliffe has as disciplined a defense as you’ll see. They don’t miss assignments and wrap up tackles with uncommon efficiency for today’s college football world. If you’re going to light up the scoreboard against Duke, you better just blow by them.
UNC has had more issues in this department in 2014 than in years past under Coach Fedora. But the Carolina skipper insists the ‘game-changing play’ is going to happen. If he’s right, T.J. Logan and Switzer are the prime suspects to deliver the goods. Tommy Hibbard is a very reliable punter for the Tar Heels, capable of flipping the field position with one sturdy boot.
But the biggest question mark comes in the field goal kicking game. Can the Tar Heels find any consistency from Nick Weiler or Thomas Moore? It remains to be seen. If this game is close, yikes!
Duke is fundamentally sound in every aspect of its special teams play, ranking in the top few spots in the ACC in punting, kickoff returns and punt return average. But Duke field goal kicker Ross Martin, normally reliable, missed a crucial attempt last weekend. Kicking can often be a fickle mental game. How will he respond to adversity for this rivalry matchup? It also must be said, the Blue Devils have the advantage of a home field. If the ‘Wally’ is ever going to be rocking, it is going to be Thursday night.
This game is hard to prognosticate. I think the most interesting matchup will come down to the Duke rush defense, which has struggled, against UNC’s TJ Logan. If the Tar Heels can pick up yards on the ground consistently, this becomes a new contest. It will free Williams all the more to attack downfield and hit his favorite playmakers like talented newcomer Mack Hollins, sophomore sparkplug Ryan Switzer and the reliable Davis.
I’ve always said the past couple seasons that I truly believe UNC’s best stuff is better than Duke’s best stuff. I stand by that statement. But the thing is, you know what you’re going to get with the Blue Devils (well, don’t worry about last week). With the Tar Heels, you just never know. They like to shoot themselves in the foot, and that’s what Duke absolutely thrives on, as Coach Fedora said earlier this week.
My best guess? I think UNC will come out firing, get another big performance from Williams, play from ahead, and ultimately, slow down Duke’s attack enough to emerge victorious and bring the Victory Bell to Chapel Hill.
UNC 34, Duke 30
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