Five things to watch: Tar Heels look to continue their Duke dominance

UNC comes into the game at 7-2 (5-1 ACC), still clinging to hope for a second straight Coastal Division title. Duke (3-6, 0-5) must win its remaining three games to earn bowl eligibility

Eamon Queeney—The North State Journal
Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive back Corey Griffin (14) and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defensive back A.J. Gray (15) spin North Carolina Tar Heels running back Elijah Hood (34) as they tackle him in the third quarter of the college football game at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill

Originated in 1948 by a pair of cheerleaders, UNC’s Norman Spear and Duke’s Loring Jones, the Victory Bell is one of the most unique rivalry trophies in college football. And it’s up for grabs again tonight as part of a matchup that, while not as publicized or nationally relevant as its basketball cousin, has still provided its share of intensity, intrigue and memorable moments. UNC comes into the game at 7-2 (5-1 ACC), still clinging to hope for a second straight Coastal Division title. Duke (3-6, 0-5) must win its remaining three games to earn bowl eligibility. Over the years, the Victory Bell and its wheeled cart have been almost exclusively the private domain of the Tar Heels. Only Twice over the past dozen years has it left the stadium painted the darker of the two shades of blue. Here are five things to watch as we wait to see which color it will take on for the next 12 months:Picking and grinning Incredibly, UNC still has not intercepted a pass this season. It is the only FBS team remaining without one, despite a secondary that picked off 17 a year ago, is led by proven cover corners Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart and currently ranks third in the ACC in pass defense at 192.9 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik had no answers to explain the interception drought when asked about it a few weeks ago. “Sometimes turnovers come in droves and sometimes it’s a desert,” he said. “We’ve had our chances to get some, particularly earlier in the year. There have been several times where we’ve gotten hands on footballs and we haven’t come down with the ball.” If the Tar Heels are ever going to get rid of the zero in the interception column, tonight may be their best chance. Although Duke quarterback Daniel Jones has played well after getting thrust into the starting role by a preseason injury to senior Thomas Sirk — completing 62 percent of his throws for 2,037 yards and 11 touchdowns — he’s been prone to making mistakes. His nine interceptions are among the most in the ACC this season. That includes a game against Virginia in which he was picked off four times.Faster, the better Tempo is always important for the Tar Heels, but it could likely have an even greater impact on tonight’s game given the way Duke coach David Cutcliffe — as a result of his injury-riddled roster — has succeeded in slowing down previous opponents Louisville and Virginia Tech. Granted, the Blue Devils didn’t win either of those games. But in both games, they succeeded in staying with their favored opponents until the final possession by slowing down the tempo, shortening the game and throwing off the rhythm of the fast-paced offenses they were facing. UNC has had trouble in the past in games that have taken on a slower pace than their preferred track meet style. But to their credit, the Tar Heels were able to impose their will on Georgia Tech and its ball-control attack last week and prevent it from becoming a low-possession game through the combination of crisp execution and balance on offense and an opportunistic defense that forced a pair of turnovers. “We just need to be efficient,” said Fedora, whose team churned out a season-high 636 yards on the way to a 48-20 win last week. “If we can be efficient running the football, I think we’ll throw the ball efficiently. If we do those things and keep converting third downs we’ll stay on the field and hopefully get the ball in the end zone.”Special teams Although Ryan Switzer has yet to break a long punt return — at least, one that counts — the Tar Heels have been adept at producing difference-making plays in the kicking game this season. By contrast, Duke has consistently hurt itself in that same area. It’s a disparity UNC will look to exploit, especially if the Blue Devils line up to kick a field goal. Consider that Duke ranks dead last in the ACC with only three 3-pointers and has made only 3 of 8 attempts all year (yes, there is someone out there worse than Kyle Bambard and NC State). The decisive margin in last week’s loss to Virginia Tech came on a 75-yard touchdown return after the Hokies blocked a 30-yard attempt by Duke’s A.J. Reed. On the other side of the ball, the Tar Heels have blocked three field goals in their last four games, including one last week against Georgia Tech. UNC’s kicker, Nick Weiler, is 10 of 14 on field goals and has three successful kicks of 50 yards or longer — including that game-winning 54-yarder on the final play at Florida State. For whom the bell tolls A lot of attention has been paid in the days leading up to tonight’s game to the Victory Bell and whether or not the tradition of the winning team painting it their color would continue. Thanks to a change of heart by athletic directors Bubba Cunningham and Kevin White, it will and the Tar Heels have already indicated that they plan to bring several cans of Carolina Blue with them. It’s always good to be prepared, UNC might want to put that paint away in a safe place and forget about it until it’s actually needed tonight, lest they forget that their rival also has a darker shade of blue ready to be sprayed in the event that it comes out on top. The point is that despite being an 11-point favorite and riding a nine-game winning streak in true road games, the Tar Heels don’t have any room to get compacient. Duke is a much better team than its 3-6 record suggests and if Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood and others — including Fedora — get caught up trying to put on a show for the national television audience as an audition for the NFL draft or a better job, they could end up being as surprised as Hillary Clinton on Tuesday by the end of the night. Matchup history Tonight’s game marks the 103rd renewal of the UNC-Duke rivalry, but only the second time in the history of the series that the game will have been played on a Thursday night. The first time was also in Durham, two seasons ago. The Tar Heels won that game 45-20. They also prevailed 66-31 in Chapel Hill last year, scoring the most points ever in a game against their rival. Despite the lopsided nature of the past two games and the fact that UNC has won 10 of the last 12 meetings, seven of the last 11 games between the Tar heels and Blue Devils have been decided by eight points or less.