Both programs were having their best season in years, with this matchup potentially being between two undefeated teams before they had their meltdowns. UNC stunningly dropped two games while their name flirted with the college football playoff race. Meanwhile, Duke lost momentum after the Notre Dame loss, to get blown out by Louisville and barely squeezed by Wake Forest.
Duke only sits one game behind UNC in the rankings, making this matchup critical. If the Tar Heels want to punch their ACC championship ticket, they need to finish the season strong with a win against Duke.
To leave Saturday with the victory bell and record intact, there are a few things UNC will need to accomplish. Here’s a look at the defensive keys for Saturday’s game against Duke.
Watch out for the backup
Oct 21, 2023; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; Virginia Cavaliers quarterback Tony Muskett (11) tries to get rid of the football as he is brought down by North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Kaimon Rucker (25) in the first half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports
A lot of what worked with Duke this season was thanks to their star-caliber quarterback Riley Leonard. Sadly for Duke, their junior quarterback will be helping from the sideline while he remains out for an extended time due to a toe injury.
That said, UNC will turn their attention to backup quarterback Grayson Loftis. Despite Loftis struggling throughout the Wake Forest win, completing 7 for 19 passes for 89 yards, one touchdown, and an interception. He could still cause problems for UNC.
There’s not much tape to go on, and the last time a backup quarterback came to Chapel Hill, Tony Muskett led UVA to a stunning win that completely derailed UNC’s playoff hopes.
Get off the field
Oct 14, 2023; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels defensive lineman Myles Murphy (8) celebrates after recovering a fumble against the Miami Hurricanes in the second half at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports
The next key is getting Duke off the field, by making first and second down tough, forcing third and longs. Duke has a 35.51% conversion rate on third down and 41.67% on fourth down. Odds are in UNC’s favor, but without doing their job on first and second down. It could be a long night for the Tar Heels.
Fill the run gap and play tight coverage on the receivers. There should be no relaxed coverage to get Loftis comfortable. Instead, send the blitz and make the backup rethink the position.
Use the crowd
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA – OCTOBER 14: North Carolina Tar Heels fans cheer during the first half of their game against the Miami Hurricanes at Kenan Memorial Stadium on October 14, 2023 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Lastly, own the moment and use the crowd energy for momentum, not mistakes. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment when you have thousands among thousands chanting Tar Heels. That said, staying disciplined while exciting is going to be the biggest difference maker in this game.
Allowing Duke to stick around because of bad penalties or a collapse in coverage is a recipe for disaster. Instead allow the crowd to do its job by making Duke’s offense work to get a play off, forcing a delay of the game and miscues in routes.