Saturday night, the Tar Heels will host the Duke Blue Devils in Kenan Stadium in one of the most important games in recent memory. The team will be looking for a fifth-straight win over their vaunted rival and return to their early season form that had them inside the top ten. This would be the perfect way to send the seniors and Drake Maye out in their final time in Kenan Stadium, but it is easier said than done in this game that has produced a lot of nail-bitters in recent years.
The Tar Heels got a much-needed confidence boost last week against Campbell and now they hope to build on that as we head into the home stretch of the season. Leading the way for this team is an offense that boasts two of the best playmakers at their position in the entire country. Quarterback Drake Maye has put together another outstanding season and appears to be rounding into form as the team hits the stretch run. Maye has a streak of six games with at least three total touchdowns and has graded out as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks each and every week. He has one of the best running backs in the country alongside him in the backfield in Omarion Hampton, who is on track for one of the best seasons from a running back in program history. He reached the 1,000 yard mark last week and has already found the endzone 12 times this season, numbers which are amongst the best in the country. The team may have to lean heavily on the running game in this one with their banged up receiving corps. Nate McCollum is questionable after missing last week’s game, meaning third-string slot receiver Doc Chapman could be in line to play a big role once again. The good news is that Tez Walker continues to shine, even after spending the night in the hospital after a hit against Georgia Tech. Tight end Bryson Nesbit has been outstanding in the last three weeks and has become a reliable target for the team in the second half of the year. The offensive line continues to be very solid, especially when they have been at full strength. Willie Lampkin continues to prove himself as a great acquisition on the interior, while Corey Gaynor and Spencer Rolland have been much better in their second year with the team.
Defensively, the team is hoping that last week’s performance against Campbell was enough to jumpstart the unit after rough showings against Virginia and Georgia Tech. The defensive line was still pushed around early by the Campbell offensive line in the run game at times, but was finally able to wear them down in the end. The edge rushers have gotten consistent pressure all year long led by Kaimon Rucker, but they have had a problem containing the edge on run downs. Meanwhile, the interior of the line has reverted back to their early season issues of winning 1-on-1 battles, making it a tough task to win the line of scrimmage. The linebacking corps has been doing what it can to pick up the slack behind that inconsistent defensive line. Cedric Gray and Power Echols continue to be one of the most productive linebacking duos in the country. The secondary still remains vastly improved from last year, but they have had some issues containing some of the deeper receiving corps. The safety duo of Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman had a really strong start to the season, but Chapman has been beaten deep a few times in recent weeks. Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen are significantly better than the starting corners from a year ago, but have still had their ups and downs as the season has gone along. The corner group was also extremely thin against Campbell with both Tayon Halloway and Lejond Cavazos not playing because of injury.
The special teams unit continues to be one of the worst in the country. The kick coverage unit is a complete disaster, allowing the eighth-most return yards so far this year and the punt coverage unit has already allowed three blocks so far this season. Punter Tom Maginness has had his ups and downs since Ben Kiernan went down with an injury and the kick return unit has only produced one significant return all season. The kicking and punt return games is the strength of the unit, but even those aren’t amongst the best in the country by any stretch.
The Blue Devils aren’t feeling nearly as good as they once were about this season, but this is still a team that is having a really strong second season under Mike Elko. Quarterback Riley Leonard’s toe injury is a significant blow to an offense that was off to a great start to the season. True freshman Grayson Loftis will be making his second career start following a pretty quiet night in the come-from-behind victory over Wake Forest last Thursday. They will lean heavily on one of the best backfield duos in the conference in Jordan Walters and Jaquez Moore. In the passing game, Jalon Calhoun and Jordan Moore will test this Tar Heel defensive backfield as they look to help Loftis out more than they did against Wake. The strength of this offense is in the trenches, but they may still be without left tackle Graham Barton who has missed the last month with an injury suffered against Connecticut. The unit will still be one of, if not the best, offensive line group that the Tar Heels will face this season, anchored by guard Jacob Monk.
There is no denying that this will be the best defense that this Tar Heel offense will face this season. The Duke defensive line is one of the best in the country with R.J. Oben and Wesley Williams off the edge and DeWayne Carter and Aeneas Peebles in the middle. That foursome has registered 68 total pressures already this season and has led the charge for the Duke run defense that he has a very nice season. The linebacker duo is having an outstanding season, but starting middle linebacker Dorian Mausi did miss the Wake game due to an injury. Tre Freeman is one of the nation’s leader in total tackles, though, and will lead the unit if Mausi is there or not. The defensive backfield might be the weakest part of this unit, but they are still one of the best in the ACC led by corners Chandler Rivers and Brandon Johnson and safety Jaylen Stinson.
The Blue Devils special teams unit is a solid one, but not nearly as sound as it has been in past year. Punter Porter Wilson has one of the strongest legs in the entire country and Jalon Calhoun has had some nice production as a punt returner. The kicking game, however, isn’t nearly what it has been in the past with Todd Pelino already having missed four kicks and the kick return game hasn’t been overly effective either.
Off. PPG: 39.1 (T-12th)
Off. PYPG: 319.7 (8th)
Off. RYPG: 199.1 (18th)
Off. TYPG: 518.8 (3rd)
Off. 3rd Down %: 50.8% (7th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 47.0 (T-50th)
Sacks Allowed: 22.0 (T-92nd)
Def. PPG: 23.3 (T-50th)
Def. PYPG: 239.4 (93rd)
Def. RYPG: 151.2 (T-77th)
Def. TYPG: 390.7 (83rd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 39.7% (79th)
Tackles for A Loss: 52.0 (T-71st)
Sacks: 23.0 (T-40th)
Interceptions: 12 (T-8th)
Turnover Margin: +12 (T-2nd)
Penalties Per Game: 7.0 (T-108th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 67.6 (T-120th)
Off. PPG: 25.7 (T-78th)
Off. PYPG: 161.1 (122nd)
Off. RYPG: 180.0 (38th)
Off. TYPG: 341.1 (99th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 35.5% (103rd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 43.0 (T-32nd)
Sacks Allowed: 11.0 (T-18th)
Def. PPG: 15.7 (8th)
Def. PYPG: 179.3 (16th)
Def. RYPG: 149.8 (75th)
Def. TYPG: 329.1 (30th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 37.6% (61st)
Tackles for Loss: 49.0 (T-84th)
Sacks: 20.0 (T-61st)
Interceptions: 7 (T-70th)
Turnover Margin: +2 (T-47th)
Penalties Per Game: 5.6 (47th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 41.4 (T-20th)
Keys to the Game
Be Ready for a Fight
The Tar Heels are somehow 13.5-point favorites in this game which is scary considering how poorly this team has handled these types of games. The team is also 1-5 in their last six games against backup or third-string quarterbacks, so they can take Loftis and this Duke offense lightly. The Blue Devils will bring fight to this game as they almost always have for the last decade and the Tar Heels need to be prepared to match it. They need to treat this game for what it is: the game that decides the direction of the 2023 season.
Hold Your Own on the Line of Scrimmage
Duke’s strength is their trench play and this has been where the Tar Heels have lost a lot in the Mack Brown era. We’re not even asking them to win the line of scrimmage, but at the least, they can’t get dominated if they want to have a chance to win this game. It’s certainly possible that the offensive line can do this, but it will be a challenge for the defensive line against this Duke offensive line.
Slow Down the Run
This goes back to winning the line of scrimmage, but the Tar Heels simply have to find a way to take away this Duke running game. The Blue Devils will be leaning heavily on their backfield duo to carry them in this one, meaning that the plan should be to load the box and make Loftis have to make plays to move the football. If they can do that, this pass rush and opportunistic defensive backfield are capable of making this a tough night for him.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Jacolbe Cowan (lower body), Elijah Green (redshirt), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Ryan Coe (lower body), Nate McCollum (lower body)
OUT- Riley Leonard (toe), Eli Pancol (lower body)
QUEST- Graham Barton (undisclosed), Henry Belin IV (undisclosed), Myles Jones (undisclosed), Dorian Mausi (undisclosed)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 8:00 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)