What UNC’s Gameplan Should Be To Beat Duke


North Carolina and Duke will face off on Saturday afternoon with more than just a Victory Bell on the line. When these two teams take the field, the ACC Coastal division will very much be up for grabs, and the winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat for the division.

North Carolina will enter the game with a 7-1 record and a #21 ranking in the AP Poll. Duke was ranked up until last weekend’s ridiculous and improbable loss to Miami on one of the craziest plays in ACC football history. However, despite falling out of the polls and having two losses already this season, Duke is a very good football team that will pose a significant challenge to the Tar Heels.

Let’s take a look at what UNC’s gameplan should be if they want to defeat the Blue Devils on Saturday.

When Duke has the ball

Load the box

Duke is averaging 180.6 rushing yards per game this season, a mark which ranks fifth in the ACC. That rushing game is the strength of this Blue Devils team, and the Tar Heels should load the box against the run to take that strength away.

What do I mean by “load the box”? It is a football term that, in simplest terms, implies bringing extra defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. For the Tar Heels, I’d like to see that Donnie Miles Jr., a talented, physical safety, play up closer to the line to snuff out all the read-options and stretch plays that Duke likes to run.

The second part of this strategy is…

Make Thomas Sirk beat you with his arm

Carolina must load the box and dare Thomas Sirk, a shaky passer, to be them over the top with his arm. Sirk does pass for a lot of yards per game — his 1788 passing yards this season rank third in the ACC and are 165 more than Marquise Williams has. But, his yards per attempt is low at 6.4 yards per pass, ranking 13th among 14 qualified passers in the ACC. This suggests that Sirk throws a lot of short passes and doesn’t have the arm or the accuracy to hit WRs for big plays down the field.

With that in mind, Carolina should play press coverage on Duke’s outside receivers, as they did a lot last weekend against Pitt, and leave the corners out on an island against those wideouts. UNC’s cornerbacks, M.J. Stewart, Des Lawrence and Malik Simmons, are playing so well this season that this strategy wouldn’t leave UNC exposed against a poor passing team like Duke. I trust Stewart and Lawrence out in single coverage, and leaving those corners alone, that will also free up more defenders for the run game.

When UNC has the ball

Feed Elijah Hood and Marquise Williams in the run game

Against Duke last season, the Tar Heels ran for 316 yards on 57 attempts, and that outstanding 5.5 yard per rush mark was achieved without Elijah Hood.

Duke’s rush defense is a stronger unit this season. Opponents average 128.9 yards per game and 3.0 yards per rush against the Blue Devils defense that is led by safeties Jeremy Cash and DeVon Edwards.

One thing the unit does very well is stop the run on passing downs. Per footballoutsiders.com, Duke ranks first in the country Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry, a stat that measures how successful a team is at running the ball on passing downs. Duke allows 1.15 yards per rush on these downs, a remarkable number (for comparison, UNC’s mark in the same stat is 3.69 yards per rush).

UNC will have to stay ahead of the chains, then, to avoid that stout rush defense. One way to do that is by running the ball on “standard downs”, which is one of UNC’s strengths as a team. Again per footballoutsiders.com, the Tar Heels rank third in the country with 3.51 yards per rush on standard downs*.

UNC must feed the ball to Hood and Marquise, leveraging their strengths as an offense and neutralizing one of the Duke defense’s strongest features.

Be Explosive

I realize that is a vague term, but the idea behind it is to let Marquise Williams take shots down the field and target his explosive receivers, Ryan Switzer and Mack Hollins. Remember how Sirk was 2nd to last in the ACC in yards per attempt? Well, Marquise Williams is first in that category, averaging nine yards per pass. UNC’s offensive coaching staff should build a game plan that allows Williams to show off his arm and take a lot of shots downfield.

More from UNC Football

Duke is very good at limiting explosive drives. Per footballoutsiders.com, Duke is ninth in the country in a stat called “explosive drive rate,” which measures the percentage of opponent drives that earn at least 10 yards per play. But the Heels were able to be explosive last season in Durham, racking up 592 total yards and big plays to Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and T.J. Logan.

UNC has to win the explosive play battle, and the playcalling should reflect it. Take shots over the top of the defense and challenge Duke’s safeties, as good as they are.


Stay tuned to Keeping It Heel for more coverage of UNC vs. Duke!

*(first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer)