A short week in November is much different from a short week in September, and Duke has a lot to prepare for with little time to do it.
The Blue Devils will host rival North Carolina Thursday, with the stakes higher than ever at this point in the season.
No. 15 UNC (7-2, 5-1 ACC) is looking to stay in the running for a second straight Coastal Division championship, while the Victory Bell is one of Duke’s few remaining chances for bowl eligibility.
UNC won the last two games of the series and leads it 60-38-4 all-time. Duke lost 12 of its last 13 home games against the Tar Heels, last winning, 33-30, in 2012.
On Monday, coach David Cutcliffe said Duke (3-6, 0-5 ACC) had to use limited practice sessions to correct possessions. It’s no secret: Duke’s lost a lot of really, really close games. In four of their six losses, the Blue Devils had the ball with a one-score game in the fourth quarter.
“It’s all over the place,” Cutcliffe said about whether he addressed specific possessions. “It’s not just a possession, it’s what may have occurred. When you’re ahead in the chain defensively, we allowed (a team) to get out of a hole. It’s very difficult to play defense when you get them on second-and-12, second-and-10, second-and-14. You gotta win second and third down.”
Before Saturday’s 24-21 loss to Virginia Tech, Duke hadn’t allowed a fourth-down conversion all season. The first one it allowed turned into a Jarod Evans touchdown in the second quarter, when the Blue Devils lost their momentum after a blocked field goal attempt was returned for an additional Virginia Tech touchdown.
Cutcliffe said the play came down to an alignment issue; had he seen it before the snap, he would have called a timeout.
“Those are the what-ifs of a football (game),” Cutcliffe said. “We try to teach the same as if we’ve won or lost.”
You’re doing more than you normally would two days after a football game. That’s the balance. You have to prepare for a football team but certainly not at the expenses of your players.
He also acknowledged how good UNC is this season. The Tar Heels are led by redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky, the No. 1 quarterback prospect behind Clemson’s Deshaun Watson as listed on CBS Sports.
UNC scored on all five of its chances in the red zone against Georgia Tech last week, while holding the Yellow Jackets to three of six tries down there.
The Tar Heels rank first among ACC teams in third-down conversions.
“We always study third downs,” Cutcliffe said. “When you get to a point where you have opportunities to make stops, that’s critically important. I think people know a lot of Louisville’s offense. I think North Carolina’s balance and the usage of what they do, you’re talking about run game, run-pass option game, drop-back game, screen game. There’s a balance to their attack, and it’s in a lot of ways maybe more difficult to defend.”
Duke is normally off on Mondays, but the team practiced that night. It also did loosening work with the strength and conditioning coaches.
“You’re doing more than you normally would two days after a football game,” Cutcliffe said. “That’s the balance. You have to prepare for a football team but certainly not at the expenses of your players.”
He said the Blue Devils spent less time going against each other in the shortened practices.
Running back Shaun Wilson was listed as probable Tuesday, likely leaving quarterback Daniel Jones without many weapons in the backfield. Wilson took a helmet hit against the Hokies Saturday, resulting in a targeting call on Virginia Tech.
Back Joseph Ajeigbe was also banged up after that game.
“They’re beat up a bit,” Cutcliffe said. “I believe they’ll both be there. We’ve got another whole day in the training room, so we’ll see.”
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan
UNC at Duke
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham