Battle of the Blues

UNC vs. Duke: A football rivalry reborn

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 29, 2013 

The old dramatic ESPN promo used to espouse the “eight miles of pine trees” that separate North Carolina and Duke, and the two shades of blue, and the voice over in the commercial sounded a little something like those old NFL Films montages, narrated by John Facenda.

The UNC-Duke basketball rivalry has warranted those types of productions over the years. Now on the opposite ends of those pine trees, there has been a rebirth in the long-lost football rivalry between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, who will play Saturday, for the 100th time, at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

The schools are natural rivals in everything, and in all sports, but it has been a while – a long while – since Duke and UNC played a football game with as much at stake. With a victory, Duke would secure its place in the ACC championship game next week. With a victory, UNC would secure a winning record, and vengeance.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe grew up in Alabama, where college football is the closest thing a sport can be to religion. Cutcliffe spent a large part of his coaching life in the SEC, but when he arrived at Duke he began learning of a rivalry unlike one he had been part of. Now it’s starting to mean something in football.

“It’s unique, to say the least, just because of the locations, the proximity of the two schools,” Cutcliffe said earlier this week. “But it has more meaning (now in football), and that’s a good thing.”

Cutcliffe has guided Duke on a wild, improbable journey this season. The Blue Devils have won seven consecutive games. They have defeated Virginia Tech and Miami. They are one victory from a 10-win season, which would be the Blue Devils’ first.

A lot of this is new for Duke, which earned a top 25 ranking last weekfor the first time since 1994. Cutcliffe said he was at home when he was told that a man from ESPN was on the phone waiting for him. Cutcliffe said he thought maybe it was an interview request.

“I said ‘hello,’ and he said, ‘yes sir, we’re running a holiday special on ESPN the Magazine,’” Cutcliffe said. “There are always reminders out there. Remain humble. Humility is a great virtue.”

He’s hoping the message carries over to his players. The Blue Devils are still in the process of making Cutcliffe’s vision it a reality, and there is work to be done.

A victory against UNC would be even more significant than the one last season, when the Blue Devils ended an eight-game losing streak against the Tar Heels.

That victory was Duke’s sixth of the season, which made the Blue Devils bowl eligible for the first time since 1994. It was a victory that came with “a lot of milestones,” Duke receiver Jamison Crowder said earlier this week.

Crowder,who is from Monroe, has been a part of the culture change in Durham. He grew up in North Carolina, but never really paid much attention to football games between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils.

“In high school, it was just more of a basketball (rivalry),” said Crowder, whose touchdown catch in the final seconds last season gave Duke a 33-30 victory against UNC. “I didn’t really follow it as much in football. I might have seen that they were playing, but it wasn’t as big as the basketball (rivalry).”

It’s still not, and might never be. But the football game is something more than it has been.

UNC: Erasing a bad memory

There is an energy that hasn’t recently surrounded games between these schools. At UNC, players have walked this week inside the Kenan Football Center, the building that houses the locker rooms and team meeting rooms , and been treated to reminders from their loss at Duke last season.

The video clips haven’t featured anything from the actual game, said James Hurst, UNC’s senior left tackle. But there has been plenty of footage of Duke’s postgame celebration: the students rushing the field at Wallace Wade Stadium, the players painting the Victory Bell a darker shade of blue. Hurst said the videos have been “everywhere.”

“It brings up all the memories,” Hurst said. “It brings up – I don’t know if regret’s the right word – but it’s just the bad memories of losing that game.”

Before last season, UNC had lost to Duke just once – in 2003 – since 1990. After the loss, some UNC players said they had looked past Duke, that they didn’t take the Blue Devils seriously.

That sense of arroganceis no longer present. It has been replaced by respect, and desire for retribution.

“This definitely means a lot more than it has in years past, because they’re no longer the Duke that people talked about when I first got here,” Kareem Martin, UNC’s senior defensive end, said earlier this week. “They were a team that was on the schedule, they were considered a rival but that was because of the proximity of the schools.

“But they were never considered a threat the first couple of years I was here. But after last year, their program was starting to build and now they’re 9-2 on the cusp of a 10-win season.”

Martin said it’s on his mind and the minds of his teammates: the thought of being “able to ruin their ACC title hopes.” Last year, Martin and his teammates were part of the first UNC team to lose to Duke in nine years.

Now, the Tar Heels don’t want to be the last team Duke beats on its way to the ACC championship game. Reaching that game, in Charlotte, has always been the Blue Devils’ goal this season – even if outsiders might have deemed it unrealistic.

Duke still fighting for respect

That Duke is one victory from playing Florida State for the league championship shows how far Cutcliffe has taken the program during his six years. That the Blue Devils are underdogs to UNC, which has yet to beat a team with a winning ACC record, shows how far Duke has to go to gain widespread respect.

Dave Harding, a Duke senior offensive lineman from Orlando, has grown to appreciate the culture surrounding the Duke-UNC rivalry. When he goes out around town, he said, he’s usually reminded of it in some way.

“But the way I’ve seen it evolve … I’ve seen Duke get better year to year in matching North Carolina’s talent,” Harding said. “North Carolina is a very talented team, and they do a great job in recruiting. But coach Cutcliffe has helped level the playing the field in a lot of ways. And so that’s made us a lot more competitive.

“And obviously, getting the win last year shows that we’re on the right track.”

The football rivalry is on the right track toward renewed relevancy. UNC and Duke haven’t met this late in the season with winning records since 1994. Neither team has ever met with as much at stake as Duke, which is playing for the Coastal Division title.

For more than 20 years, the football rivalry between UNC and Duke existed in name only – a sad, orphaned little brother to the basketball rivalry. Now the football game, which will be broadcast to a national audience on ESPN2, can stand on its own.

“This is a legitimate big game,” A.J. Blue, UNC’s senior running back, said earlier this week. “Like, this is the big game. For them, last year, how they felt coming into the game last year is probably how we feel this year.”

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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