When North Carolina introduced Larry Fedora as its next head coach in December 2011, Fedora heard a lot from Tar Heels fans about a losing streak to a certain rival. UNC, at the time, had lost five consecutive games against N.C. State.
Now, Fedora said Monday, he has been reminded of another losing streak against another rival. The Tar Heels dominated Duke throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, but now UNC is enduring its first losing streak against the Blue Devils since the late 1980s.
“I’ve heard a lot about that,” Fedora said. “So we know it’s a big game. I mean, there’s no question. I don’t have to say much about it. I mean, the kids know what’s at stake. They know what we have to do. I think they’re excited. I think they’ll be full energy on Thursday.”
UNC and Duke are used to playing on national stages in basketball. This is unheard of, though, in football: a prime-time game on ESPN, the national college football spotlight all to themselves. At the start of the season, it looked like it might decide the Coastal Division.
And while Duke is still alive in the Coastal, the best UNC can hope for is a victory that would clinch bowl eligibility – and end a rare two-game losing streak against the Blue Devils. In each of the past two seasons, UNC has lost in similar fashion against Duke: overcome a slow start to take the lead and then fail to hold it.
Last season, the Tar Heels led 25-24 with about seven minutes to play. Then Duke went on an 11-play, 61-yard drive that ended in Ross Martin’s 27-yard field goal with two minutes, 22 seconds to play. UNC reached midfield in the final moments but Marquise Williams threw an interception with 13 seconds to play.
Two years ago, the Tar Heels lost in even more heartbreaking fashion. UNC trailed 23-9 only to come all the way back and take the lead when Giovani Bernard recovered a fumble and returned it for a touchdown with about three minutes to play.
But then the Tar Heels couldn’t come up with a defensive stop. Duke drove 87 yards on 14 plays, and Jamison Crowder scored the winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining. Duke’s 33-30 victory was its first against UNC since 2003.
In each of the past two games against Duke, UNC has followed a familiar pattern to defeat. The Tar Heels trailed 23-9early in the fourth quarter in Durham two years ago. Last season, the game was close throughout, but UNC dug itself another hole and trailed 24-15 in the third quarter before rallying.
Defense hasn’t been a strength for UNC at any point under Fedora – though this season has been worse than anybody could have envisioned – and the Tar Heels have had some of their worst defensive games in recent seasons against Duke.
In 2012, UNC surrendered 510 yards against Duke – the third most the Tar Heels allowed that season. Last year, UNC gave up 461 yards against the Blue Devils – again the third most UNC allowed that season.
That kind of showing, though, might represent an improvement this season. In 10 games, UNC has allowed more than 461 yards seven times. If it does again, against this Duke offense, it might just rank among the worst defensive performances of the season for the Tar Heels.
UNC has faced plenty of good offenses this season – East Carolina, Clemson, Miami, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh – but Duke’s has been average. The Blue Devils rank 69th nationally in yards per game (396.1) and ninth in the ACC.
One thing Duke has done extremely well on offense: avoid turnovers. It has committed nine – which ranks seventh nationally and first in the ACC.
“Those guys are going to play error-free football,” Fedora said. “They don’t turn the football over. It was uncharacteristic of them this past week (in a loss against Virginia Tech). And they’re very disciplined with penalties. There are not many.
“Basically what Duke does is wait for you to beat yourself, and that’s what happens quite a bit.”
That’s what happened, in essence, the past two years for UNC against Duke. Not necessarily late in games, when Duke made the plays to come back and win. But early on, when the Tar Heels bumbled their way through slow starts that forced them to be perfect the rest of the way.
Motivation, at least, shouldn’t be a problem for the Tar Heels. They said after that loss two years ago that they looked past Duke. There was none of that a season ago, and there should definitely be none of that now – not after the results the past two seasons.
Then again, UNC junior quarterback Marquise Williams couldn’t name Duke’s stadium earlier this week.
“We’re just ready to get the (Victory) Bell back,” Williams said. “And it’s our last two games – the most important games. And we want to be known as the team to remember in November. And Duke’s in the way to be trying to stop us … and I think these guys are excited to go to (whatever) the stadium’s name is to have some fun Thursday night.”
Wallace Wade Stadium?
“Wallace Wade,” Williams said. “That’s where it is, baby.”