Even in a down year for UNC (1-7, 1-5 ACC), rivalry week against Duke still elicits reactions like these. Linebacker Cole Holcomb said that the Tar Heels, already eliminated from postseason contention, are treating it like a quasi-bowl game. And they’re even more focused on bringing the Victory Bell back to Chapel Hill.
Duke has won two straight against UNC football, including a 27-17 win on the road last season. In that game, quarterback Chazz Surratt, a former Duke commit, threw the first interception of his career — an eventual 61-yard dagger of a pick six.
And in 2016, the Blue Devils upset a nationally ranked UNC team, 28-27. Since that loss, the Tar Heels are 3-19 against FBS teams and 2-14 against the ACC.
Holcomb, a senior, played in both of those tight losses. But he also played in North Carolina’s 66-31 trouncing of Duke in 2015. As he spoke on Wednesday, the linebacker was visibly excited — wringing his hands, almost bouncing in place — as he thought about his last chance to bring the bell home.
“We’ve got to get that bell back,” he said. “I’m telling you, man, it doesn’t feel good not having it there. It was nice being able to see it, coming in every day, but it hasn’t been there. So we’ve got to get it back.”
It won’t be an easy task against the 6-3 Blue Devils, who are coming off a 20-12 win at Miami. They’re led by quarterback Daniel Jones, a Charlotte native averaging 226.7 yards a game.
Jones, a capable runner, is joined on the ground by Deon Jackson, who has 115 carries for 647 yards. In the air, Duke boasts two receivers over 400 yards on the season, T.J. Rahming and Johnathan Lloyd. UNC players also credited Duke’s defense for being a steady presence (22.2 points per game allowed).
No player or coach has had trouble getting excited, though. Quarterback Nathan Elliott called it a “bragging rights and pride type of game.” Offensive tackle Charlie Heck used to watch the rivalry on TV as a teenager, when his brother, Jon, played at UNC. He’s now about to play in his third.
Head coach Larry Fedora reminisced on his introductory press conference, back in 2011. As he shook hands with people afterward, the Duke game came up, again and again. On that day, Fedora realized its importance.
“There’s no other rivalry really like this,” he said, as night fell over Kenan Memorial Stadium on Wednesday. “You live with it year-round … it’s always going to be important.”
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