The North Carolina football team's upcoming game against Duke is not just a regular matchup — it's a personal one.
With three consecutive wins against the Blue Devils, the Tar Heels believe giving up the Victory Bell is not an option.
“That bell [has] been here for a while,” junior defensive back Tony Grimes said in Tuesday's press conference. “We can't lose that bell. I can’t personally watch that bell walk out of this locker room.”
Winning this rivalry game is something whose importance is magnified to each player that enters the program. First-year defensive back Will Hardy shared how, each day on the way to practice, he walks past pictures taken of previous senior classes after they defeated Duke and highlighted the significance of adding this year's class photo to the wall.
“I know a lot of seniors are motivated, but even as a freshman, you gotta be motivated to win it for the seniors and for the entire program,” he said.
Going into Saturday's game in Durham, the Tar Heels sit just one win away from securing bowl eligibility and are 2-0 in conference play. Although the Blue Devils have struggled in recent seasons, they have put up a formidable record of 4-2 this fall under new head coach Mike Elko's guidance.
“We know they’re much better,” junior wide receiver Josh Downs said. “They're not the same Duke team as the past three years, but we didn't take those Duke teams lightly either.”
The Blue Devils have been especially successful in their ability to run the ball, averaging 190 rushing yards per game. Additionally, they have a weapon in quarterback Riley Leonard, who has been able to capitalize on his own running skills to move the ball down the field.
However, North Carolina is confident in its capacity to limit Duke's offensive abilities. In the aftermath of a 45-32 loss to Notre Dame three weeks ago, the defense has stepped up in a major way.
Against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels held the Hokies to just 10 points, and after a game-sealing interception against Miami last weekend, something seems to have clicked within the team.
“The mood has been great, (we have) more confidence in ourselves but all we got to do is just keep our foot on the gas,” Grimes said. “We’re so close, just minor mistakes, minor fixes we've got to make.”
This quiet confidence seems to have spread throughout the team, which is aided by the fact that the team is one win away from matching last season's total.
“Overall, I think everybody's upbeat," redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye said. "It's hard to be down when you're winning."
This confident attitude is bolstered by the offensive prowess of players like Maye, who has won ACC Rookie of the Week four times this season. The defense feels that it can count on the offense to put in strong performances each game, which takes off some of the pressure and allows the unit to settle in and do its job.
The team has also found success in its ability to finish games — something that plagued the group last year. Multiple times throughout the season, the Tar Heels have found themselves leading by seven points or less in the fourth quarter. But instead of falling apart down the stretch, this team has been able to close out games and secure wins.
“The second half is when you win games, especially in the fourth quarter,” Maye said.
The Tar Heels will look to utilize this confidence, team spirit and ability to finish games in order to defeat Duke once again in their upcoming showdown. Not only would a win continue these trends, but it will put the team in a solid position heading into the second half of the season.
“We beat Duke Saturday, (and) we’re rolling. We’re 3-0 in the Coastal and we control our destiny at that point,” Downs said. “We’re in the driver's seat right now.”
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