DURHAM — Last January, Duke coach David Cutcliffe went to his defensive coordinator with an idea.
I told Jim Knowles, everyone is playing fast on offense, including us, Cutcliffe said. Everybody is in to all that. Lets set the tone for playing fast defense.
Play fast has been a buzz phrase for the defense all season, and the unit will need that mentality when they host North Carolina at 7 p.m. Saturday.
First-year Tar Heels coach Larry Fedora brought a propensity for an up-tempo spread offense that matched his Red Bull-fueled personality. He has sped up the pace of play for North Carolina, as the Tar Heels rank 13th in the country with an average of 75 offensive snaps per game.
Duke, which quietly uses a similar offensive philosophy, is actually close behind North Carolina with an average of 73 offensive plays per game, which ranks 22nd nationally.
That familiarity means the Blue Devils have had months of preparation for Saturdays matchup.
Tempo, tempo, tempo, thats what coach Cut is all about, defensive lineman Kenny Anunike said. Our discipline and our conditioning are the two major things that we are built on. Since spring, thats something weve been working on.
Duke sent two offensive huddles onto the field in the spring against the first team defense. Both would receive their calls at the same time, and one would break, approach the line, and snap the ball. As soon as that play finished, the next huddle immediately came to the line and ran its play.
That same drill already has been run a few times this week. Cutcliffe coached the scout team offense Tuesday in order to ensure they ran at a fast enough tempo, and, since Duke and UNC do run some of the same plays, the second-string offense has gone against the first team defense as well.
Wed have to rally, get back to the line of scrimmage, get down and just go, Anunike said. Weve got the answers. We just have to go out there and execute.
Its the last part of that statement, the execution, that has been lacking the past three games, particularly in the run defense. While Duke beat Wake Forest and Virginia, it allowed 167 and 186 rushing yards, respectively. Despite only rushing for just 2 yards in the second half, Virginia averaged over 5 yards per carry.
The trend worsened last week against Virginia Tech as the Hokies averaged nearly 7 yards per carry and 269 yards total. True freshman J.C. Coleman had 183 rushing yards.
Obviously, it was like a slap in the face, Anunike said. It got us back grounded, I think we were getting into the clouds a little bit with all the success that we were having. Were back to where we need to be.
Meanwhile, North Carolinas running back, Gio Bernard, has rushed for 439 yards in the past two weeks, including a career-high 262 yards against the Hokies. Duke managed only 22 rushing yards on 29 attempts against the same defense.
Despite their recent performance, the defense insists that they will be able to contain Bernard.
Hes a great back, powerful runner, but were going to have some answers, Anunike said. If the D-line secures our gaps and the secondary is where we need to be, we can make sure we have a handle on him.
I guarantee you we are going to come out to play. Well be firing on all cylinders.
• Burton dismissed: Redshirt freshman returner/cornerback Tim Burton was dismissed from the program for violating rules, Cutcliffe said in a release. Burton averaged 20 yards on 13 kickoff returns. He also had seven tackles and broke up two passes.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley