Oakes’ Outlook: Dean Smith, Priceless Gem

I never had the chance to meet Dean Smith. But somehow, I always felt like I knew him. We all did.

I’ll never forget standing in the Smith Center as a UNC student, chills tingling down my spine. In his last public appearance in the house aptly named after him, Coach Smith took his final bow in February of 2010.

The roof could have popped off the Dean Dome that day for the “Celebration of a Century” event. An uncomfortable Coach Smith, never one to like the spotlight – always pointing the credit elsewhere, couldn’t hide from it this time. He received a showering of love and admiration from former players, assistant coaches and the entire Tar Heel nation. The affection was palpable. The radiant warmth was immense.

Coach Smith was overwhelmed. Teary-eyed, he gazed up at the rafters containing the national championship banners and retired players’ jerseys – legendary figures of the sport, so many of whom he sculpted and molded into better men. Coach Smith slowly lifted up his arm, sheepishly acknowledging the thunderous applause. It seemed like it lasted for hours.

But then, just as suddenly, he was gone. Walking off through the tunnel and disappearing behind the black curtains, out of view. Coach, I’ll never forget that experience. On that day, the giver finally got to receive. But it was like saying goodbye to an old friend.

There’s just so much you’ve given to all of us, Coach. Thank you.

Your innovative techniques and relentless emphasis on teamwork (‘we’ before ‘me’) transformed the game of basketball forever. And of course, your teams experienced wild success, so much so that Carolina is now synonymous for college basketball – the Tar Heel jersey, world-renowned.

But your national titles and Final Four appearances don’t begin to explain the deep sadness your void has left in all our hearts. We mourn for the impactful man that touched our lives. A friend. A father. A teacher.

He taught us we could achieve greatness at the highest level while still doing it the right way, ‘the Carolina Way’ – with a class, dignity and humility unwavering. You

Yes, we lost a leading pillar of Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the entire college sports nation over the weekend. Dean Smith, your lasting legacy is hard to put into words. And now that you’re gone, it’s even harder.

I can’t wait to get back in your Smith Center soon and hear the emotional cheers for your humble video introduction,”Hello, I’m Dean Smith, and I’m a Tar Heel.” Yes, you are. But you’re so much more than that. Coach, I know you’re in a much better place up there in that beautiful Carolina blue sky. Heaven just gained a ‘priceless gem.’

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Oakes’ Outlook: The ACC Stakes

And they’re off! It’s a quick pace and a fast track we have here today, folks. And as they round the far turn in The Atlantic Coast Conference Stakes, it’s last year’s title-holding thoroughbred, Cavalier, who’s managed to stick his nose in front. But Lucky Irish and Sweet Caroline are dueling neck and neck just behind. Oh, and here comes Devil Duke! He’s found an inside position along the rail.

Cavalier’s got one of the rising trainers in the game in Tony Bennett. Bennett consistently gets the best out of his horses and knows what it takes to topple the sport’s finest.

Lucky Irish is a sight to behold. This beautiful, high-octane animal can fly with the best of them, but some wonder…can he maintain his poise through the home stretch?

Sweet Caroline hasn’t lived up to perennial lofty expectation in recent years, but now surrounded by a deep and talented team, this filly might be equipped for a return to the top spot.

Devil Duke certainly has the athleticism and power to blow past all the competition, but can he avoid the potential pitfalls in a tightly packed crowd?

Rick’s Cards is a wild card threatening to trump all of our competitors. Ruthless, muscular fighter, he is, but as for the speed? He may want a slower pace.

Don’t look now, but there’s a tropical Miami Hurricane rumbling this way that could flatten everything its path. Supreme physicality and aggression abound. Can it be harnessed?

But back to the live action! They’re storming round the corner and into the back stretch. We’re on track for a record time with blistering speed. But who’s in danger of falling off the pace?

Some, I’m afraid, have already succumbed, dropping off the back end.

OUT OF CONTENTION – let’s hope you didn’t bet on any of these nags

Yellow Jacket, Hokie High, Demon Deacon, Tiger Orange, Seminole, Boston Eagle

DANGER ZONE – the whip might come in handy right about now

Panther Paw, Orange Dream, State’s Wolfpack

IN THE HUNT – all the eyes are still firmly on the prize, for good reason

Hurricane Miami, Rick’s Cards, Lucky Irish, Sweet Caroline, Devil Duke, Cavalier

Matt’s Picks: Cavalier – Sweet Caroline – Lucky Irish

As this stacked field makes its way down the back stretch, it’s anybody’s guess who will have the stamina, speed and tenacity to claim this historic prize and go into The NCAA Derby as a hot favorite.

Will Cavalier reassert his dominance? Will upstart Lucky Irish sprint his way past the competition? The late money really liked Sweet Caroline – do they know something we don’t? Any aces up Rick’s Cards sleeves? And who would bet against jockey K using all of his guile and experience on board Devil Duke to cross the finish line first yet again?

The battle is fierce. The energy is electric. The nerves are suffocating. History awaits. The buzzing sell-out crowd, clad in classic ACC regalia, rises to its feet in anxious anticipation.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Photo courtesy of business-opportunities.biz

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Oakes’ Outlook: The Fire Still Burns

Tuesday night served as a glaring reminder to any who may have thought UNC’s 64-year-old Hall of Fame coach had lost his edge. Folks, the fire still burns.

Somehow, Roy Williams was given a technical foul for yelling at one of his own players, freshman Theo Pinson. Contrary to what some may have thought, Ol’ Roy wasn’t arguing the foul call. Not at all, even though the whistle was questionable at best. But nope, Ol’ Roy was trying to signal to Pinson to call a timeout – the officials were giving him the cold shoulder.

And the classic case of miscommunication at its finest, ended ugly. Ol’ Roy turned into Mean Ol’ Roy in a flash, throwing off his jacket and giving the officials an earful. I, for one, couldn’t help but wonder if Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was somewhere taking notes on how to best pull off a jacket in a fury. If not, he should have been. Based on Tuesday night, Mean Ol’ Roy could teach a class on ‘Jacket Tossing 101′.

Photo courtesy of Bruce Young

Photo courtesy of Bruce Young

But the more profound takeaway wasn’t the mere fact of Ol’ Roy’s first technical in three years, it was the response. The fans exploded. In a split second, a sleepy Smith Center turned into a raucous beehive of activity, thunderously supporting their coach and team. Sights and sounds like Tuesday night are generally reserved for Duke games.

The Tar Heels themselves, seemingly spurred on by Ol’ Roy and the fans, also lifted their levels, speeding away from the Tribe of William & Mary and putting the game to bed.

Marcus Paige, though, voiced his displeasure that it would even need to come to that – that it took a freak episode to get the crowd and the team fired up and fully engaged. I have to agree with the junior point guard. Why isn’t that passion consistently there, especially from the players?

Ol’ Roy assured the media it wasn’t his intention to ‘go off’ on the referees and induce a technical, but you could sense it brewing from the start of the second half. He made a statement, even if not a planned one.

As Paige put it, his coach was furious with the so-called ‘dummy defense’ the Heels were playing. ‘Dummy defense’, Paige explained, was akin to lining up with no defensive players on the floor and letting an opponent run its full offensive sets. Yikes!

On the cusp of ACC action and a brutal slate of high-caliber opponents, it’s concerning the Tar Heels still suffer from lapses in concentration, focus and intensity. And it’s blatantly clear Ol’ Roy isn’t satisfied.

He’s thrown down the gauntlet to his team and will likely continue to bubble over on the sidelines, if needed, as the season progresses. But alas, the Carolina skipper can’t play a single possession for the Tar Heels.

Yes, the fire still burns for Ol’ Roy.

But the bigger question as we turn the calendar to 2015…will the fire burn for his players?

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Photo courtesy of Todd Melet

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Breakin’ It Down: Quick Lane Bowl

Once again, Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels enter postseason play with an underwhelming 6-6 record and just like last year, Carolina will be hoping to end the season on a high note with a bowl victory and head into the offseason with some momentum.

On the other side of Detroit’s Ford Field, UNC will see the 7-5 Rutgers Scarlet Knights out of the Big Ten. UNC and Rutgers have met six times before on the gridiron, with UNC winning the last encounter by a 24-22 margin in a 2011 win inside Chapel Hill’s Kenan Stadium.

The Quick Lane Bowl is Carolina’s 31st all-time bowl appearance, but it’s the first in the state of Michigan. The Tar Heels have won two of their last three bowl games.

Offense

The Tar Heels have a significant advantage on this side of the ball. UNC is averaging 34.2 points per contest, while Rutgers is only managing to score 25.6 points a game. For one, the Tar Heels have more weaponry at the skill positions, with the talented trio of Mack Hollins, Ryan Switzer and Quinshad Davis figuring to be in prime condition for big outings the day after Christmas. In addition, you have to give the edge at the quarterback position to junior Marquise Williams. Although Rutgers signal caller Gary Nova is an efficient passer, averaging 222.3 passing yards per contest, he’s not near the dual-threat machine of Williams, who can just as easily beat you with his legs as through the air. The Scarlet Knights will rely heavily on Paul James and Desmon Peoples and stick to their ground assault Friday against the porous UNC run defense, but will Rutgers have enough firepower to strike early and often against an up-tempo, explosive Carolina offense that’s eager to make amends for its struggles in the regular season finale?

EDGE: UNC

Defense

UNC’s issues on the defense the past couple of seasons ultimately led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. In his place, Dan Disch steps in on an interim basis and will attempt to plug up the holes and inspire a capable performance from the beleaguered unit. Senior Norkeithus Otis, for one, will certainly be hungry to end his final game in Carolina uniform with a respectable showing. Carolina’s defense, most notably in the Duke victory, has shown glimpses of putting it together, but poor tackling and blown coverages have become an all-too-common theme.

As for Rutgers, it’s been a case of some hot and cold play in 2014. When they’re good, they’re seemingly great. They held Penn State to a mere 13 points back in September and also successfully navigated Navy’s tricky triple-option attack. But when things go the other way, well, it’s ugly. Rutgers gave up 57 points to Ohio State and even surrendered 38 points to lowly Washington State. On a positive note, though, the Scarlet Knights usually embrace a “bend, don’t break” style of play, often finding a way to hold opponents to three on their trips inside the red zone. That trend would do well to continue against the score-heavy Tar Heels.

EDGE: Rutgers

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams are fairly sound with their kick and punt return coverage, so it could be tough for guys like Ryan Switzer and Janarion Grant to get any type of game-changing play Friday evening at Ford Field. But as for field goal kicking, the big edge has got to go Rutgers place-kicker Kyle Federico. He’s made five from outside of forty yards. As for the Tar Heels? Well, neither Thomas Moore nor Nick Weiler has connected from more than 30 yards away. Let’s just say Coach Fedora doesn’t want to see this game come down to the leg of a kicker.

It must also be mentioned, the “excitement factor” is not something to overlook when it comes to bowl season. Which team is more pumped up about their bowl destination can have a tangible impact on the outcomes in the college football season. And in this case, there is no doubt who’s more thrilled with the opportunity to play in the Quick Lane Bowl – that’s Rutgers. UNC had designs on a trip to the ACC Championship game and a New Year’s Day bowl and now, here they are squaring off on the day after the 25th. Will that have an effect in this one? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

Rutgers can do some nice things and should have plenty of success running the football against a rather poor UNC defensive front. But in bowl games, I favor explosiveness. The Tar Heels will have plenty of fireworks to set off in Motown. I have no doubt the Scarlet Knights will move the football, but will they be able to turn those drives into enough touchdowns to hang with Carolina? Over the course of the 2014 season, UNC racked up 19 more trips to the end zone than Rutgers. Marquise Williams will find his footing again and have another big-time game through the air and on the ground to lead the Tar Heels to their second straight bowl win and make former UNC player and current Lions tight end Eric Ebron happy for the holidays.

UNC 42 – Rutgers 24

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Oakes’ Outlook: Bowls, Roles and Noles

Motown

And so the Tar Heels’ disappointing 2014 campaign will come to a close in Motown. It’s a fitting end (a dreary and cold one in the Midwest at that) for Carolina in a season that began with its head coach, Larry Fedora, proclaiming “it’s time.” Time for what, exactly, I’m not sure, but it certainly wasn’t a trip to the Quick Lane Bowl to face the equally mediocre 7-5 Rutgers Scarlet Knights.

Grab your tickets, folks! Get ‘em while they’re hot. I hear you can grab a pair of upper deck tickets for $75 each. After all, who doesn’t want to spend Christmas in Detroit?

The only one who might be excited about UNC’s bowl destination is Eric Ebron. The ex-Tar Heel turned Detroit Lion won’t have to travel far to watch his former teammates play. Enjoy, Ebron. I’m sitting this one out.

Photo courtesy of longshotblues.com

Photo courtesy of longshotblues.com

 

Platoons

Strap yourselves in, Carolina fans. I’m setting the over/under for the number of times we hear the word “platoon” Saturday at 50. Place your bets!

If you haven’t heard, the Tar Heels head to Rupp Arena Saturday for a meeting with the No. 1 team in the land – the Kentucky Wildcats. I’m still waiting to hear back from John Calipari’s folks for an interview…then I can ask him which side he’d like on that over/under. He’s a betting man, right?

The real question in this game is whether the blue platoon or the white platoon gets more playing time. “What did you think about that platoon shift there? I don’t know, Calipari may have taken the blue platoon out a little too soon – they’re a more offensively-gifted platoon.” Just a taste.

But let’s face it: the result isn’t really in doubt. The margin of victory? Sure. UK is really good.

Just remember, we won’t be watching a war movie this weekend. This will be college basketball. It will be easy to confuse the two. You’ll be all “platooned” out when the final buzzer sounds around 2 p.m. Saturday.

FREE ADVICE: Get your earplugs ready.

Photo courtesy of fashiontimes.com

Photo courtesy of fashiontimes.com

Jimbo’s Genius

Has there ever been a more dominant team less appreciated (or, ummm….more disrespected) than Florida State?

29 straight victories. Defending national champions. Three-time defending ACC champions. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. Tradition. Pageantry. Legends.

You can think whatever you’d like about Jameis Winston’s childishly foolish behavior off the field, but I choose to separate the product on the field from the transgressions off it.

And the product I’ve witnessed on the field since November 24th, 2012 (the last time they came out on the wrong end of a scoreboard) has been nothing short of spectacular.

And yet, as the Seminoles continued to rack up the victories this season, they began to slide down the College Football Playoff rankings. In effect, FSU was penalized for doing what? Winning. That’s downright laughable.

Dear committee members, I don’t envy your job. It’s a tough one, no doubt. But you’re missing the forest for the trees.

Photo courtesy of atlantablackstar.com

Photo courtesy of atlantablackstar.com

The goal of a game is to win. Score more than your opponent. Who’s done that better than FSU? Nobody.

Flash only takes you so far. Substance prevails. FSU has plenty of that. But this year, at least, FSU isn’t sexy. Americans like sexy.

Perhaps that’s why each week, without fail, prognosticators, pundits and so-called experts pick the Noles to lose. This will be the week, they say. The week they won’t find a way to escape.

Yes, some day, maybe very soon, it will all be over. The Seminoles will lose. Most people will be happy.

But until then, I choose to give credit where credit is due. I’ll embrace the gritty determination, the steely composure under pressure and the ability to flip the switch. I admire it all. Why hate? Appreciate!

This year’s FSU team undoubtedly has more cracks in the armor than last year’s dominant display of perfection – in every phase of the game. The defense has holes. Jameis is more errant with the football. But in a way, to me, that makes the 2014 Noles even more impressive.

They’ve persevered. They overcame off-the-field issues. They survived the media onslaught. They’ve taken everybody’s best shot each and every week. They’ve been hated, and they’ve handled that too.

Photo courtesy of ngngsports.com

Photo courtesy of ngngsports.com

Sometimes you forget that these are 18, 19 and 20-year-old kids.

It’s far easier to get to the top than to stay there. Everybody wants to knock you off the pedestal, especially if you’re Jameis Winston – the guy everybody loves to hate. So what’s the magic formula to the Seminoles’ ability to stave off all challengers? There are lots of ingredients.

But the man stirring that potent concoction is Jimbo Fisher.

I still remember sitting a few feet away from the FSU head coach back in July at the ACC preseason media event in Greensboro.

There was something in the glint of his eyes and the infectious conviction in his words that made me a believer. Right then and there. Signed. Sealed. Delivered.

He let me take a peek behind the curtain. He talked for over 20 minutes on this thing called the “attitude of domination.” He discussed how in order to be special, you have to do something different that others aren’t willing to do. The throngs of national media members listened to the man preach.

Some coaches are X’s and O’s guys. And yes, Jimbo’s no slouch in that department. But I’m convinced that what sets him apart is not his football expertise.

No, Jimbo’s a philosopher. Behind those dadgum-its and goofy smiles, there lies a resolute belief system for success. I see how he gets his Noles to buy in.

We’ve grown so accustomed to Jimbo being asked the same questions by the TV sideline reporters after each and every thrilling come-from-behind victory this season. One of those questions is always, “How do you guys continue to come up with these fourth quarter comeback wins?”

Jimbo’s regular response? “It’s who we are.”

That resonates with me. And more importantly, it’s resonated in the hearts and minds of his players.

Through it all, the Seminoles have continued to live up to the University’s motto – UNCONQUERED. 29 and counting…

But yet again, everybody and their mother will be picking Florida State to lose when it takes the field in Pasadena against the mighty juggernaut that is Oregon in the national semifinals.

That’s just fine with Jimbo and the Noles. In fact, they like it that way.

Follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

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Breakin’ It Down: NC State

The North Carolina Tar Heels look to back up their impressive 45-20 win at Duke with another rivalry win to close out the regular season. The 6-5 Tar Heels will welcome the N.C. State Wolfpack, also sporting a 6-5 record, to Chapel Hill Saturday afternoon for a 12:30 p.m. kickoff in the 104th meeting of the series.

Both squads will like their chances heading into the contest. UNC has won four of its last five, while N.C. State is coming off a resounding 42-13 victory over Wake Forest and has enjoyed two weeks of preparation for their most hated adversary.

The Tar Heels have won the past two meetings in the rivalry, but before that, it was the Wolfpack that held the upper hand with five straight wins. Saturday’s collision promises to be full of emotion and intensity, but which team will best channel that energy into positive production?

Offense

The Tar Heels are formidable on this side of the ball, ranking second in the ACC in scoring offense, averaging 36.7 points per game. Carolina has accumulated 500 or more yards in four of the last six games, including a season-high 591 yards against Duke.

Junior signal caller Marquise Williams is not only the ACC Offensive Back of the Week for the fourth time this season, but also a candidate for ACC Player of the Year. Williams is a lethal dual threat QB at his most dangerous when on the scramble. N.C. State’s defenders will need to play disciplined and be careful to not over pursue this week, or they run the risk of looking silly. And with Mack Hollins sprinting down the sidelines, Ryan Switzer darting into narrow lanes over the middle, Quinshad Davis (only needs one more touchdown reception to tie Hakeem Nicks’ school record at 21) looming large as a sure-handed target and T.J. Logan running with rediscovered authority, Williams has plenty of offensive sidekicks at his disposal.

The Wolfpack offer a well-balanced offense conducted by Florida transfer WB Jacoby Brissett. Brissett, much like Williams, is capable of hurting a defense with his arm and his legs. Brissett places third in the conference in the total offense category, trailing only FSU’s Jameis Winston and UNC’s Marquise Williams. Running back Shadrach Thornton, who leads a Wolfpack rushing offense ranked fourth in the ACC, can run downhill when he gets going and will relish his chances against a suspect UNC rush defense.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

The Tar Heels rank at or near the bottom of every major statistical category in the ACC. But they’ve shown some life in recent times – most notably with flashes against Pitt that were followed up by a complete performance at Duke. With Des Lawrence and Brian Walker playing better in the secondary, the Tar Heels haven’t been giving up as many explosive plays of late. Can it continue against the Wolfpack? There are still holes to be found by a high-performing offense no doubt, but UNC has shown the ability to force timely turnovers and come up with surprising stops as well.

N.C. State has been up and down all season on defense. You never know what you’re going to get as the Wolfpack seem equally as likely to struggle and be torched for 50 points as put the pieces all together and hold opponents down. Led by Art Norman, N.C. State likes to get after the quarterback and apply a ton of pressure when they can, but the Wolfpack have also struggled to stop the run, giving up 188.8 yards per contest. A rejuvenated T.J. Logan may be licking his lips.

EDGE: PUSH

Special Teams/Intangibles

Both teams are fairly sound in the special teams department. In fact, UNC tops the conference in kickoff coverage. But the question mark at the place-kicking position still leaves a rough scar on the Tar Heels. With no confidence in either Thomas Moore or Nick Weiler to make anything over 30 yards, UNC head coach Larry Fedora should be going for it on fourth down quite a bit on Saturday. The Wolfpcack, meanwhile, have a bit more stability at that position thanks to Niklas Slade. In the intangibles, you know both teams will be fired up and prepared for battle. But the friendly confines of Kenan Stadium, where UNC has lost only once this season, should provide an extra boost for the Tar Heels on Senior Day.

EDGE: PUSH

Prediction

There should be plenty of fireworks in this regular season finale. But N.C. State would do well to establish the run game early, limit Carolina’s cracks at the ball and keep the crowd out of it with some initial offensive success. Playing from behind against the explosive Marquise Williams and company is not advised for the Wolfpack. On the other hand, the Tar Heels will make life much easier on themselves if they jump out to an early lead and apply pressure on Brissett and the N.C. State offense.

In the end, I think the UNC defense will force a turnover or two and produce a few more stops than the N.C. State defense. And that’s not because I like the Tar Heel defenders more than the Wolfpack defenders, it’s because I think the UNC offense is more equipped to take advantage.

UNC 41, NCSU 31

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Breakin’ It Down: Duke

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.

Offense

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.

EDGE: UNC

Defense

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.

EDGE: Duke

Special Teams/Intangibles

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.

EDGE: Duke

Prediction

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

You can follow Matt on Twitter @moakes3

IMG_2620-1.JPG Photo courtesy of Dallas News

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