A wild Coastal Division race will presumably take another step toward clarity on Saturday afternoon as North Carolina welcomes Duke to Kenan Stadium.
With both teams coming off losses — in very different fashion — either the Tar Heels (3-4, 2-2 ACC) or Blue Devils (4-3, 2-2) will remain in contention while the other will presumably fall two games behind in the loss column.
Here’s what to watch for:
Turnovers Tell the Tale
Win the turnover battle, win the game — it’s that simple.
“The couple of problems with their losses have been turnovers,” Carolina coach Mack Brown said.
In Duke’s four victories, the Blue Devils have a total of two turnovers, including three games without a giveaway. In three losses, the Blue Devils are -7 in turnovers with a total of 14 in those games.
Carolina’s fortunes haven’t necessarily been tied to turnovers as the Tar Heels lost to both Clemson and Virginia Tech while going plus-three in those games. Overall, Carolina is 10 nationally in turnovers, but 76 in takeaways.
The Blue Devils are 54 with 11 takeaways, but 121 of 130 teams with 16 turnovers.
After handling kickoff duties last week, Jonathan Kim replaces Noah Ruggles on field goals after the sophomore kicker missed two attempts in Blacksburg.
On the offensive line, redshirt freshman Josh Ezeudu moves into the left guard position previously occupied by Ed Montilus.
“We’ve just got to step up and do a better job up front being physical,” Brown said.
The change was necessitated in part by Carolina’s miserable second half running the ball at Virginia Tech, where the Tar Heels managed just 27 yards after a 116-yard performance in the first half.
The mistakes up front were numerous.
“We had a couple in pass protection,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “We had a couple in the run game that resulted in some (tackles for loss), that were more physical in nature than they were mental. It’s just those little things are things we’ll focus on this week. You can’t make those same mistakes against Duke if you expect to beat this team.”
Just as much as winning the turnover battle, Brown believes the Tar Heels have to establish the rushing attack.
"We’ve got to run the ball better; we didn’t’ run the ball very well in the second half, even though we threw it well at Virginia Tech," he said. "We’ve got to be more balanced, we’ve got to do a better job up front."
Michael Carter isn’t worried about the physical toll that Saturday’s six-overtime loss at Virginia Tech took on the Tar Heels, but they’re certainly cognizant of any hangover effect.
“A lesson I’ve learned from it so far is don’t let one loss beat you twice,” Carter said.
Brown has liked his team’s approach in practice, and earlier in the week, players took it upon themselves to demand more.
“I think if everybody on the team just puts in maybe 15, 20 more minutes a day, every single day through this week, I don’t think we’ll be disappointed on Saturday,” linebacker Jeremiah Gemmell said.
Senior linebacker Dominique Ross said this Carolina team is more equipped than those of the past to move on after a tough loss.
"This coaching staff, they bring the energy every day," he said. "They’re going to come out with a passion, they’re going to come out with the same confidence, they're going to have our back and we always feel like we’re going to win the game. I feel like it’s more of the coaches pushing us to get better."
New Heights for Howell
Freshman quarterback Sam Howell has been solid from the start of the season, but he’s hit a new gear over the past two games, completing 59 of 100 attempts for 724 yards with nine touchdowns and one interception.
“I think every week it slows down a little bit more for me,” Howell said. “Definitely getting a little more comfortable every single week.”
Duke ranks 42 nationally in pass defense, giving up an average of 203.7 yards.
Howell couldn’t care less about his impressive stats as of late.
“At the end of the day, I just want to win games,” he said. “The numbers and stuff, that doesn’t really mean anything to me.”
The Perfect Fit
Brown has great respect for Duke coach David Cutcliffe.
“David is experienced, he’s smart, he’s tough,” Brown said. “He’s the perfect fit at Duke… To me, he’s the one that sat down with their people and said, ‘Here’s what we have to do to win at Duke, and I want to make this work.’”
Prior to Cutcliffe’s arrival in Durham, the Tar Heels won 17 of 18 games in the series.
After four straight losses to Carolina to begin his tenure at Duke, he won five of his past seven meetings vs. Larry Fedora.
“I told them it’s not a rival until we get better,” Brown said. “It’s time for us to stand up.”