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UNC football looks to get back on track in battle for Victory Bell against Duke

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The UNC football team runs out of the tunnel before the game against Duke on Oct. 26, 2019. UNC went on to beat Duke 20-17.

Following a stunning loss to Georgia Tech last weekend, the North Carolina football team will host rival Duke at Kenan Stadium this Saturday where the Tar Heels will look to flip the script of a slow 2-2 start to the season. 

The 23-point loss to the Yellow Jackets was the largest margin of defeat during head coach Mack Brown’s second stint at UNC. But a prime opportunity awaits to get back on track against the Blue Devils.

After opening the season with a loss to Charlotte, Duke has won three straight games against North Carolina A&T, Northwestern and Kansas. The Blue Devils have showcased an explosive rushing attack, as the team leads the ACC in rushing yards per game with 247.3.

To find success, UNC will need to slow down senior running back Mataeo Durant, who, through four games, is tied for first in the conference with eight rushing touchdowns and second in rushing yards with 522. In last year's game, Durant torched the Tar Heels with 132 yards and a touchdown on just 11 carries.

One of the contributing factors to UNC's upset loss to Georgia Tech this past Saturday was its inability to stop the run, as the team allowed the Yellow Jackets to pick up 261 yards on the ground. If the Blue Devils are able to replicate that success, the game could come down to the wire.

As for Duke's passing game, senior quarterback Gunnar Holmberg has been a serviceable signal-caller, throwing for 1,140 yards on the season. Holmberg’s favorite target is Jake Bobo, a 6-foot-5 wide receiver, who already has a career-high 392 yards thus far.

UNC struggled offensively last week in Atlanta, but Saturday could be an opportunistic time for the offense to regain its explosive standard. Duke’s defense ranks second worst in the ACC in yards allowed per game, allowing its opponent to gain an average of 422.3 yards. 

The potential the Tar Heel offense holds has been seen this season in games against Virginia and Georgia State. In both games, the offense put up 59 points and sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs emerged as a potential star.

Downs ranks ninth in college football in receiving yards, and his ability in the open field has been put on display in the early season. Look for junior quarterback Sam Howell and the passing offense to use Downs early and often in hopes of sparking the offensive attack.

However, the Tar Heels' overall offensive success is also predicated on a strong running game. UNC relies on the play-action pass, a scheme that baits defensive players to commit to the run to open up receivers down the field. 

In games where the Tar Heels have had offensive success, the running game has been strong. In both victories this season, Howell and graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler have posted impressive rushing outputs, and in the win over Virginia, both players set new career-bests with 112 and 198 yards, respectively.

Last season’s “Battle for the Victory Bell” turned into a blowout early as UNC led 42-10 at halftime, and eventually ran away with a 56-24 win. Despite the Tar Heels' early struggles, they are still 20-point favorites, indicating that many believe a similar result could play out this year. 

But if UNC's 2-2 start has taught the team anything this season, it's that point spreads don’t determine games — four quarters of football do. 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com  

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