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November 18, 2005The 2005 season has not gone according to plan for the Duke Blue Devils. In the second full season under head coach Ted Roof, the Devils had aspirations of significantly boosting last year's total of two wins.
However, Duke can only hope to match that number with a victory in the season finale at North Carolina Saturday afternoon.
A season filled with injury problems and major offensive struggles has left Duke with a 1-9 mark and an 0-7 ledger in ACC action.
However, a win over the arch rival Tar Heels would catapult the Devils into the offseason with a significant morale boost and generate momentum entering the stretch run of the all important recruiting season.
So with the Victory Bell on the line, can Duke figure out a way to defy the odds and claim a second straight win at North Carolina's Kenan Stadium?
The game will likely hinge on these five points:
1) Duke's offensive output
Was the improvement shown against Clemson for real or was it a fluke? Was it a legitimate sign that Zack Asack is developing into a solid ACC quarterback or was it merely a case of an offense having some meaningless success against a soft defense in a blowout loss?
For the Devils to have any chance against the Heels, the offense is going to have to be productive.
After a week off gave them an opportunity to get some bruises healed and build on the offensive successes at Clemson, the Duke offense figures to have some confidence when they charge out of the tunnel Saturday.
I pointed out after the Clemson game that the offense had practically reinvented itseld against Clemson, relying almost competely on Asack and the passing game to generate offense.
That signified a drastic change from every other game this year in which Duke has kept things close to the vest in an effort to avoid turnovers control the clock.
The first and second down play selection for the Duke offense will be one of the first first things I'll be paying close attention to on Saturday.
2) UNC's running game
As bad as Duke's offense has been this season, North Carolina's hasn't been a ton better. The Tar Heels are averaging just 19 points per game, largely due to a running game that is averaging barely 100 yards a game and only 2.7 yards per carry.
Not a single North Carolina ball carrier averages four yards per attempt. Ronnie McGill is the best of the bunch at 3.9 yards per rush and he has provided a boost to the running game since returning from injury to play in the second half of the season.
The Duke defense has struggled of late stopping the run, however, so it's no guarantee that they can stop UNC's run game no matter how unproductive it has been to date. If the Tar Heels figure out a way to move the ball on the ground, the Devils will not have a chance to win the game.
North Carolina certainly has playmakers at the wide receiver position, led by Jesse Holley's 595 receiving yards.
Five UNC receivers average at least 14 yards per catch. Needless to say, if the Devils have to load up the box to stop the running game, Matt Baker will likely have a field day with his weapons outside on the perimeter.
3) Third down conversions
It's been an achilles heel of the Duke defense, as the Devils are allowing opponents to convert 42 percent of their third down opportunities. Duke's offense hasn't been much better, converting roughly one-third of their third down attempts.
UNC's defense has allowed 38 percent of third downs to be converted while their offense has converted 36 percent of its third downs.
The defense that does the best job at getting off the field on third down is going to give their team a great opportunity to win the game.
Often, the biggest key to stopping opponents on third down is generating a pass rush, something North Carolina has been significantly better at than Duke.
The Devils have 14 sacks on the season while the Tar Heels have gotten to opposing quarterbacks 24 times, led by defensive end Tommy Davis' six sacks.
Duke can neutralize Davis by using a tight end to chip block him or keep a fullback in the backfield to help protect, but anytime you combine a freshman quarterback and a relentless defensive end, there's reason for concern about protecting the passer.
4) Forcing a big play
With both offense's having had some issues this season, the game could hinge on which defense can make a game changing play to lead to a quick score.
North Carolina cornerback Kareen Taylor took an interception back for a touchdown against Duke last season and pulled the same trick in last week's 33-30 loss to Maryland.
The prime candidate for a big defensive play for Duke is of course All-ACC cornerback candidate John Talley. Talley has five interceptions on the season and has returned those for a combined 73 yards.
Ted Roof often talks about Duke's tiny margin for error. A great way to increase that margin of error is to win the turnover battle. On the year, Duke is minus seven in turnover ratio. The Tar Heels are minus three in that category.
Duke probably will need to be at least plus two in turnovers to have a chance for victory.
5) Hidden yardage
Two very good punters will be on display at Kenan Stadium. North Carolina's David Wooldridge averages 41.7 yards per punt while Duke's Chris Sprague is at 41.3 yards per punt.
Perhaps Sprague's numbers are more impressive considering he has punted a whopping 69 times on the season, 16 more kicks than his Tar Heel counterpart.
Both punters figure to play significant roles in the game, but the kicking game yardage goes way beyond just punting.
Cumulatively, the team that wins the combined yardage battle in kick and punt returns will likely have the best chance for offensive success.
UNC's Brandon Tate is a threat when he gets his hands on the ball, evidenced by his nearly 27 yard average on kick returns and his 96-yard touchdown return earlier this season against Utah.
Wallace Wright also took a kick to the house earlier this year against Boston College.
Duke has utilized short sky kicks to try to keep the ball away from the true playmakers and are likely to do the same thing Saturday. The downside to that strategy is that as long as the opposition catches the ball cleanly, you're essentially giving up starting field position at the 30 yard line.
Duke has their own weapon returning kicks in Ronnie Drummer. He hasn't many spectacular moments returning kicks since his 100-yard touchdown return in the season opener at East Carolina, but he's always a threat to break a big play if he can find some open field.
The hidden yards will likely determine who wins the field position battle, which will undoubtedly affect the overall effectiveness of each offense.
Also keep an eye on field goals, as Duke had a kick blocked at Clemson but also blocked a kick of their own.
After a miserable season filled with blowout losses and disappointments, nothing would make Roof and company happier than to reclaim the Victory Bell and finish the year on a high note.
It's going to be tough to keep UNC's receiving weapons held down all game though and I'm skeptical that Duke will be able to consistently protect Asack in the passing game.
An all world effort from the Duke defense could give the Devils a shot at the upset, but it's just not reasonable to predict it.
Duke will leave it all on the field, but it probably won't be enough for a magical ending to a dismal season.