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October 19, 2012Just taking a glance at the Atlantic Coast Conference team statistics, one can quickly tell that this isn't your typical Duke football team this year.
By this point most years the Blue Devils are typically at or near the bottom of the league statistics in many if not most of the more important team categories, but that's not been the case this fall as David Cutcliffe brings his 5-2 squad out on their home field Saturday night in Durham's Wallace Wade Stadium to take on North Carolina.
Even after getting dominated in the second half last week in Blacksburg in a 41-20 loss to Virginia Tech, Duke's numbers are indicative of a program that is clearly getting better.
The Blue Devils rank fifth in the league in scoring offense (35.3 ppg), seventh in scoring defense (27.4 ppg allowed), seventh in total defense (394 ypg), fifth in rushing defense (149.7 ypg), fourth in passing offense (291.3), and fifth in both passing efficiency and pass efficiency defense.
Another important number is the Blue Devils' 2-1 record in the Coastal Division, which means a win over the Tar Heels, who are also 2-1, would put them in position to either outright lead or be tied for the division lead.
While Duke may not be leading the league in any of these key categories, it's easy to see in these numbers the marked improvement the program has made under Cutcliffe.
And make no mistake---UNC better be prepared to have their hands full.
"At this point we have practiced with intensity and prepared well. All that means is you've got a chance," Coach Cutcliffe said earlier this week. "You know, we've got to carry it to the field Saturday."
One of the big questions for the Blue Devils this week is how they respond after allowing a 20-0 first half lead to wither away last Saturday in Lane Stadium, when for the briefest of moments early on it looked as thought Duke was setting itself up for a true dream season.
The way Virginia Tech systematically manhandled Duke over the last three quarters---and especially the second half---bore such a resemblance to past Blue Devil gridiron meltdowns that it would be easy to suggest they are the same old Duke.
But Cutcliffe, a brilliant strategist who has won at the highest levels, including a national championship at Tennessee as offensive coordinator in 1998, has made a priority this week out of highlighting improvements instead of dwelling on the shortcomings against the Hokies, hopeful that the positivity will keep the players on the right track.
"I told them (the Duke players) in the locker room, I wouldn't beat a dead horse (about the VT loss) and I didn't. I moved right to where we, what I believe our team is, and I went through each position of our team with an evaluation, a week seven evaluation, what I thought each position had to do to fundamentally get better what we were doing what our capabilities were," Cutcliffe said.
"And then afterwards, I challenged them that it's up to them to make the decision, you know, what they are going to do about it. I can't fix it with the talk. And the only way we can work on this is on the practice field and they responded (in practice this week) and they to this point haven't quit responding."
"I thought we prepared extremely well for Virginia Tech last week, and I probably wasn't wrong, because the 20-0 start wasn't an accident, either. We were dominating the game. No gifts there. But we have to obviously maintain that for 60 minutes against these teams that are so physically gifted," Cutcliffe continued.
For North Carolina's Larry Fedora, this week is as much about keeping the train speeding quickly along the track instead of trying to get it back on track.
The Tar Heels haven't lost in a month, and they, like Duke, have a chance to be in first place in the Coastal Division either tied or outright with a win Saturday night.
"This is a very important game for us," Fedora said earlier this week. "It's the 99th meeting and game for the Victory Bell and it's something that our players take a lot of pride in and so we are excited to the opportunity to play."
"We know Duke, they are going to get after it. They are one win away from being Bowl-eligible, and they would love to do it against us."
UNC's stats on the whole are substantially more impressive than Duke's, even with the clear improvement this season.
The Tar Heels are currently in the top four in the ACC in scoring offense (third at 40.3 ppg), scoring defense (second at 17.3 ppg), total offense (fourth at 486.6 ypg), total defense (third at 327 ypg), rushing offense (third at 210.6 ypg), rushing defense (99.7 ypg), pass efficiency (fourth at 145.2), and pass defense efficiency (second at 110.3).
What's more, UNC leads the ACC in interceptions with 10, as well as punting net average (39.8 ypp), as punter Thomas Hibbard and the coverage units are doing their jobs.
But the one area where UNC statistically hasn't been as strong---the Tar Heels rank sixth in the ACC in pass defense (227.3 ypg)---is an area that Duke will clearly try to exploit.
The Blue Devils have three of the top six pass catchers in terms of receptions per game in the ACC in sophomore Jamison Crowder (46 catches---6.6 per game), senior All-ACC standout Conner Vernon (45 catches---6.4 per game), and senior running back Desmond Scott (40 catches---5.7 per game).
Vernon and Crowder are also in the top five each in the ACC in yardage, with Vernon currently ranking third with 625 yards, and Crowder with 588 yards, which ranks fifth.
Vernon has been starring for the Blue Devils since his true freshman season of 2009, Cutcliffe's second year in Durham, and he'll leave Durham as one of the most decorated players ever to play football at Duke.
He's also one of those guys who seems like he's been around forever, and he could very well be the biggest key to the game for Duke's chances of victory---as a similar player for Wake Forest, Michael Campanaro, was when the Demon Deacons upset UNC in Winston-Salem last month.
"One, he (Vernon) has obviously played a lot of snaps," said Coach Fedora. "He's very comfortable in what they are trying to do. He can run. He's got a knack for getting open and he's got great hands."
"I mean, he's a guy that is very confident, if you put the ball anywhere around him, he's going to make the catch. And so I think, one, a quarterback has a comfort level there that if -- he may not be wide open, but all I can do is get the ball in the air where he can get his hands on it and he'll make the catch, and he's done that."
Along with containing Vernon, another important key for UNC in this one is figuring out a way to manage Duke's pass rush.
Yes, we said that right. Duke's pass rush.
The Blue Devils, surprising as it may seem, currently lead the entire ACC with 18 sacks, so this is the ultimate 'something has to give' matchup with North Carolina's offensive line coming in having allowed the fewest sacks in the ACC with just four.
The Tar Heel offensive line, which ESPN Draft guru Mel Kiper called the best front in all of college football this week, figures to have the edge heading into this one, but Duke cannot be underestimated up front defensively.
Like UNC, they have a veteran group led by senior defensive end Kenny Anunike, who has five sacks and six tackles for loss so far this fall, and the Tar Heels can't take them lightly.
Fortunately for the Tar Heels, the offensive line has unquestionably been the rock of this football team, even though they don't get the recognition a lot of times they probably deserve.
Given the way they've conditioned their bodies and prepared themselves, they should feel pretty good about themselves heading into this year's Victory Bell battle against the Blue Devils.
"As they (our offensive linemen) trimmed down and got into better shape, they were able to excel," Fedora said. "I think, one, the comfort level of being together, because a lot of those guys have gotten a lot of snaps together, they trust each other and know what each other is going to do and so they are able to excel and keep moving forward and now I think they are just starting to hit their stride.
"And Jonathan Cooper, I've been coaching a long time, I've coached some offensive linemen that have been drafted in the top five or six in the country and Jonathan has some skills at the offensive guard position unlike any others that I've ever coached. He has tremendous feet. He has feet like a tight end, a very skilled tight end."
"There are quite a few tight ends out there that don't have the feet that Jonathan has. He's big and he's very intelligent and he understands what you're trying to do, and he's good at what he does."
Fedora and the Tar Heel nation is hopeful that Cooper and his mates up front for UNC can handle Duke's aggressive pass rush and make running lanes for Giovani Bernard, who as we all know has the potential to make life miserable for the Blue Devils if they're not ready.
"I don't feel like at this point that he feels anywhere like we could overload him," Fedora said of Bernard. "I don't see that. One, he missed two whole games and so it's not like he is worn down or tired."
"And if you watch the way he plays, he's not taking a tremendous amount of blows on each and every carry. He's not one of those kind of backs. It's not the amount of yards that I'm always trying to keep track of. It's the amount of hits that he takes, because you only get so many of those in a season. So during the flow of the game it just depends on his production and how he's doing."