Going into the season, North Carolina was considered the favorite to win the Coastal Division. Voted to the top spot by the media and ranked No. 10 in the nation, the Tar Heels had a quarterback who was a Heisman contender and elite talent on both sides of the ball.
Duke was an afterthought, chosen by the media to finish at the bottom of the division.
Four weeks later, so much has changed.
The Tar Heels lost their opener, at Virginia Tech, then lost at Georgia Tech in Week Four to fall to 2-2 on the year, 1-2 in the ACC. They got a total of one vote in the most recent AP poll, and coach Mack Brown talked about having to adjust their short-term goals for this season due to the poor start.
Duke, meanwhile, is riding a three-game winning streak, having gone 3-1 in the non-conference schedule. The Blue Devils became the first ACC team this season—and possibly the only one—to defeat two Power Five teams in their non-conference schedule.
So much has changed, or maybe nothing has.
“Well, what people thought (in the preseason) really is no importance. It's unimportant,” said Duke coach David Cutcliffe, pointing out that the Tar Heels have already played three ACC opponents, two on the road, while Duke is preparing for its conference opener this week at North Carolina.
“I'm looking at the film,” Cutcliffe continued. “I'm looking at an extremely talented, gifted North Carolina team that is really well-coached and plays hard, and they're a handful regardless for anybody. We just got to hope that we can play as well as we can play against a team like this. They deserved all the recognition that they had coming in because they are an extremely talented football team with a great player at quarterback, a proven great quarterback. You could go down a long list of guys like that. So yeah, it's a big challenge for us.”
UNC’s coaches also don’t have time to reflect on whether the preseason predictions were accurate or whether the schedules have been comparable. They’re too busy trying to figure out what’s been going wrong and trying to get it fixed.
Among the key problems: an offensive line that has allowed quarterback Sam Howell to get sacked 14 times this year, many of which led to fumbles, and a defense that has missed tackles and allowed too many yards on the ground—a particularly galling problem as the Tar Heels prepare to face Duke running back Mataeo Durant, who has set the school’s single-game rushing record this year, and mobile quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who tied the school’s mark for rushing touchdowns.
“Offensively, there was penetration in the run game, too many lost yards. Too many sacks, too many turnovers,” coach Mack Brown said. “And we gave turnovers on Georgia Tech's end and put entirely too much pressure on our defense… I've never, in my coaching career, I've never seen the ball given to a team on their side of the field that many times. First time in 47 years that I've seen that happen.”
On the one hand, there’s nothing better to help a team get well than a win over its arch rival. On the other, no opponent would relish the opportunity to prolong Carolina’s tailspin more than the Blue Devils.
Duke would also like to bring the Victory Bell back to Durham for the first time since 2018.
“We have a perfect place down there, right by our locker room,” Cutcliffe said of where the team stores the bell when they’ve earned it. “I've enjoyed that when we've had it. It's got a home and it's well in sight. It's right by our training room, between our training room and our locker room. When that space is empty, it's very noticeable.”
Motivating the team for the Victory Bell game is one thing that neither coaching staff needs to devote time to this week, however.
“I didn't have to bring it up,” Cutcliffe said. “They've already brought it up. They're well aware. We've got older guys in our program that have rung it, and it's a big difference. And yeah, it's important. It's an important part of the process.”
It’s an intriguing matchup that comes earlier in the season than usual—with both teams at a crossroads. North Carolina needs to right the ship and get a promising season back on track, while an unproven Duke team prepares to move to another level of difficulty.
The weather is mild, sunny with an expected temperature of 73 at kickoff raising to the mid-80s as the game goes on.
Scouts from the Giants, Jaguars and Colts got the coveted press box seats for the game.
Fashion update: Carolina is wearing light blue jerseys and helmets, white pants. Duke is all white, head to toe
Two scratches, both from UNC: RB Caleb Hood and CB Storm Duck
The referee was also replaced prior to the game. No reason why was given
Duke calls tails. It's tails. They defer. UNC ball
Duke called for offsides on the opening kick. Not the best start for the Blue Devils
Blue Devils get a TFL of Howell and a sack to stop the opening drive. Durant opens Duke's drive with a 37 yard run
After each team exchanges two punts, the Tar Heels finally break through. Howell finds Ty Chandler on the sideline, hitting him 15 yards downfield. Chandler gets a block from Josh Downs and breaks an ankle tackle attempt to take it the remaining 60 for a 75-yard touchdown pass. Carolina up 7-0 with 7 seconds left in the first quarter.
We'll have to see if this stands up. Kevin Hester knocks the ball from Gunnar Holmberg's hand as he drops back to pass. Trey Morrison scooped it up and took it 63 yards for a fumble return touchdown.
Unless it gets ruled an incomplete pass. Ruling on the field is fumble/touchdown, but it's being reviewed.
It's confirmed. UNC goes up 14-0 with 13:25 to go in the half
Duke in trouble now. Sam Howell runs 32 yards, juking Lummie Young IV out of his shoes, to get to the two. He then passes to Kamari Morales for the score. 21-0, 6:03 to go in the half.
Carolina tacks on a field goal after Jaylen Stinson breaks up a potential touchdown pass from Howell to Downs in the end zone. 24-0 Heels, 1:24 left in the half.
Duke calls time with 1 second left and Charlie Ham is about 9 yards short on a 56-yard attempt. At the half, UNC up 24-0.
Duke gets exactly what it needs to start the second half. Holmberg hits Calhoun at the 32. He takes it the remaining 68 for a 80-yard score on the first snap of the half. Calhoun dragged two defenders into the end zone with him to cut it to 24-7. 14:40 left in the third.
Tip drill! Cam'Ron Kelly breaks up a Gunnar Holmberg pass and catches the deflected ball. UNC ball in Duke territory
Duke lines up to go for it on fourth and short at midfield as the third quarter ends. The entire offensive line then jumps to start the fourth and Duke punts.
Carolina drives for another touchdown, capped by a 14-yard run by Chandler. 31-7, 10:51 to play
Howell to Downs for 63 yards as Downs weaves his way between all four members of Duke's entire secondary. 38-7, 6:04 left
That'll do it. Carolina keeps the bell with a 38-7 win