It was a Monday, which was really like a Tuesday – only shorter. Or wait: was it actually more like a Wednesday? It was difficult to tell, at times, this week at North Carolina given its short-week preparation for its game on Thursday night at Duke.
“Everything’s condensed,” Ryan Switzer, the Tar Heels’ senior receiver said, and he did mean everything.
The game-planning itself. The practices. The rest and recovery time after the previous game, a 48-20 victory against Georgia Tech on Saturday.
The Tar Heels, ranked 15th after their seventh victory in their past eight games, haven’t been alone amid the tighter logistics of a smaller work week. Duke (3-6, 0-5 ACC), which suffered a 24-21 loss against Virginia Tech on Saturday, has gone through the same challenge.
And yet UNC (7-2, 5-1) might have one advantage, at least: momentum. It’s merely attempting to keep going what is has going.
The way the Tar Heels have played lately, a short week probably isn’t the worst thing. They’re days removed from their most complete offensive performance, which came during that victory at Kenan Stadium against Georgia Tech.
UNC amassed a season-high 636 yards of offense. They ran for a season-high 283 yards. For the 10th time in school history, they had a 300-yard passer (Mitch Trubisky), 100-yard rusher (Elijah Hood) and 100-yard receiver (Bug Howard).
Another one of those 10 times came in UNC’s game before last – a 35-14 victory at Virginia. Now comes Duke, which over the past two seasons has allowed the Tar Heels a combined 111 points. The Blue Devils, beset by injuries this season, don’t appear especially equipped to change that trend.
Not that any UNC player would share that observation publicly. The Tar Heels this week said all the right things, the nice things, about Duke, which has won just two of its eight games against FBS opponents. The Blue Devils’ other victory came at the start of the season against N.C. Central.
“They might be 3-6, but they play a lot of teams close – and a lot of good teams close,” UNC junior back Elijah Hood said. “So I think it can be a little misleading. I think they’re a tough football team. Looking at some of the things that they do defensively, it’s pretty complex in the ways that they blitz.”
Another part of Duke’s potential strategy on Thursday wouldn’t be all that complex, necessarily. The Blue Devils might well attempt to do what they did against Louisville, and try to shorten the game through ball control and time of possession.
It worked against the Cardinals, who scored a season-low during their 24-14 victory against Duke on Oct. 14. The Cardinals in that game ran 61 plays – also a season low. For Duke, the best defense on Thursday night might not be a defense at all, but an offense that keeps the Tar Heels off the field.
Such an approach wouldn’t be unfamiliar to UNC coach Larry Fedora. He and his players saw something similar last weekend against Georgia Tech. Forty-eight points and 9.09 yards per play later, UNC didn’t appear too fazed.
“We just need to be efficient,” Fedora said. “If we can be efficient running the football, and I think we’ll throw the ball efficiently. And if we do those things, then we should stay on the field.
“If we keep converting third downs like we do, then we’ll stay on the field and we’ll hopefully get the ball in the end zone.”
Indeed, UNC has turned third downs into first downs at least 60 percent of the time in three of its eight games against FBS opponents. Against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels converted eight of their 13 third downs (61.5 percent), which allowed them to achieve greater scoring efficiency, too.
Hood’s return to form – he ran for a season-high 168 yards – helped. Trubisky, the quarterback, simply did what he’s done most of the year. Now UNC’s challenge is to keep it going, to pick up where it left off only five days ago.
UNC at Duke
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham