QB matchup highlights Duke-Carolina rivalry game

Battle of the Blues features top passers in Drake Maye and Riley Leonard

Quarterback Riley Leonard has helped Duke to a 4-2 start as the Blue Devils prepare to face rival UNC on Saturday in Durham. (Ben McKeown / AP Photo)

Football experts will tell you not to look at the ball when you break down game film. The key to success is in the individual battles — on the line and in coverage. Fans that focus on the guy with the ball in his hand are missing out on the areas where games are truly won and lost.

Of course, some experts will tell you that the ball is pretty important too.

“If you don’t have a quarterback,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, “you don’t have a chance to win.”

UNC certainly has a quarterback in Drake Maye, who has taken the ACC by storm, winning four ACC Rookie of the Week awards and two ACC Quarterback of the Week awards in six games this season. He outdueled another outstanding quarterback last week in Miami’s Tyler Van Dyke. This week, Brown, Maye and the Tar Heels face Riley Leonard of Duke, another promising passer.

“It seems that everybody’s got a good quarterback now,” Brown said. “That wasn’t the case.”
Brown credits the proliferation of passing camps and quarterback gurus with the rise of the ACC quarterback. He also said that the transfer portal plays a role in making sure that everyone gets a chance to find a place to start.

“Everyone’s got a quarterback,” he repeated. “That’s why so many games are close now. Before, if you didn’t have a good quarterback, you were probably going to get beat. Especially in modern football with so many points being scored, if you can’t score at a high level, you’re probably not going to win.”

So as Brown prepares his Tar Heels for their rivalry game with the Blue Devils and to match wits with Mike Elko — the fifth different Duke head coach he’s faced while at Carolina — he’s spending a great deal of attention on the quarterback position.

Leonard has eight touchdowns on the year, one more than last year’s starter, Gunnar Holmberg, had all season. He’s thrown for 1,312 yards and also rushed for 290 and four scores, making him Duke’s second-leading rusher.

“Duke’s got a guy that’s playing at such a high level,” Brown said of Leonard. “That’s one reason Duke’s so competitive and confident. They’ve got a quarterback that can run and throw it. … He’s big. He’s fast. He’s confident. He can run. When you can do that — nobody (on defense) is responsible for the quarterback unless you have someone shadow him, and then you have to completely change your defense and take someone way, and now you’re defending with 10.”

For a UNC defense that has struggled at times this season, that’s a daunting challenge.

“I think he’s got a great feel for the game,” Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said of Leonard. “I think when you look at quarterbacks that hurt you with their feet, they just have this sixth sense when they’re back in the pocket and him being able to see windows to escape. … And in the run game, all the different ways that they use him to run the football — quarterback designed, quarterback draws — let everybody get into pass coverage. And it’s kind of delayed quarterback draw, (and he is) really good with that.”

Over in Durham, Elko is looking at a way to solve a very similar defensive puzzle.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for what they are doing over there in Chapel Hill,” he said. “Offensively they are one of the most potent offenses in the country.”

Faced with the prospect of replacing the best quarterback in UNC history — Sam Howell — Maye has responded by topping him in yards per attempt, completion percentage and yards per game in his first half-season as starter. With 308 yards on the ground and three scores, he’s also UNC’s second-leading rusher.

“We’ve got to find a way to get stops,” Elko said. “That is going to involve containing [Maye] and not allowing him to get outside the pocket and create plays with his feet. I think he can do both. When he gets outside the pocket it is not necessarily just the run. I think the first thing is to try to find someone and hit a big pass play. And then if that breaks down, he is able to get out and run the football. We have to find a good plan to contain him and limit his explosives.”

Normally, coaches and players will downplay a compelling quarterback matchup, saying that the two passers don’t actually go up against each other. Elko went in a different direction, however.

“We’ve been through this before with two really good quarterbacks in a game,” he said. “Riley is going to have a little bit of onus on him to kind of match, and he is going to have to do that Saturday and have to play a really good football game for us to have success.”

Regardless of which quarterback has the advantage in the rivalry game, one thing is certain: You won’t want to take your eyes off the ball.