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Analysis: UNC football looks to control run game against Duke on Saturday

UNC freshman quarterback Drake Maye (10) runs with the ball during the football game against Duke on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022, at the Wallace Wade Stadium. UNC beat Duke 38-35.

On Saturday, the No. 24 Tar Heels (7-2, 3-2 ACC) will take on the Blue Devils (6-3, 3-2 ACC) in Kenan Stadium for UNC's senior day and homecoming game. Although North Carolina has won the past four matchups, it's safe to say that neither team is taking a game with such huge conference implications lightly.

“When the whistle is blown, when the lights cut on, when the clock starts, it ain’t no friends out there," UNC senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. "We both trying to win. We are both trying to go out there and beat the heck out of each other.”

Here are the X’s and O’s on the Blue Devils.

Duke's offense: inexperienced quarterback, run heavy

Duke quarterback Riley Leonard won't be making the start against the Tar Heels, as it was announced before the Blue Devils' recent game against Wake Forest that he would miss an extended period of time after suffering a toe injury in a loss to Louisville.

In the absence of Leonard, first-year Grayson Loftis will be taking the field against the Tar Heels. North Carolina will look to capitalize on the inexperience of the young signal caller and disrupt Duke's offensive scheme. 

“We got to stop the run, and we gotta get after the quarterback,” Gray said. “It doesn't matter who we play. So I think it will be important that when the opportunity presents itself, we have to have our best moves and we're ready to get after him on the outside.” 

Duke head coach Mike Elko runs a mesh offense that focuses on the run game and short passes. A substantial part of Duke’s successful ground attack is senior left tackle Graham Barton, who has played in 37 career games and is masterful at protecting the blindside. 

“They're physical, they're fast. They do a great job after the first bit of contact,” defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “So that's one item right now that's very challenging. That's why they run the ball so well.”

The Tar Heels have not been stellar against the ground game, ranking ninth in the ACC in rush defense and allowing their last three opponents to gain 678 total rush yards.

The Blue Devil running back room is propelled by production from graduate Jordan Waters, supported by Jaquez Moore. And as UNC head coach Mack Brown emphasizes, you have to “stop the run and run the damn ball,” with the first task being put into the hands of Gray and his gaggle of defensive backs.

The “run the damn ball” responsibility will be given to offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and the UNC offense, which will look to break through Duke’s scoring defense — which ranks the best in the ACC.

Blue Devil defense: winning the red zone

The Duke defensive effort — that was consistently stout prior to its loss against Louisville — is led by an experienced secondary and hard-nosed defensive line. Defensive tackle DeWayne Carter is the Duke D-line's biggest weapon. The redshirt senior uses his length to create separation and make plays against opposing quarterbacks.

The back seven is solid as well, with cornerback Myles Jones, linebacker Tre Freeman and safety Jaylen Stinson leading the Blue Devils in total tackles. 

“They're one of the top defenses in our league for sure,” Lindsey said. “Maybe in the country. And Coach Elko, I have a lot of respect for him.”

Lindsey and Maye will also have to contend with Duke's conference-best red zone defense. Luckily for the Tar Heels — who are first in the ACC in passing yardsUNC is eight-for-eight over the last two games in red zone scoring.

“It doesn't get any tougher than this, so good for them that they'll get tested here at the end and get to see if they can get some of the credibility back that they lost in those two games,” Brown said


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