No. 24 Blue Devils face Tar Heels for division crown
With each win in a historically successful season, Duke coach David Cutcliffe said his team would have to follow up with an even bigger win the following week.
That approach has brought the No. 24 Blue Devils here, within a win of an improbable Coastal Division championship and a ticket to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game. It all depends on whether they can beat surging rival North Carolina on Saturday (noon on ESPN2).
"What it ended up being is two teams that are on a win streak, that are playing as well as anybody in the league coming together," Cutcliffe said. "And it happens to be a rival game and it happens to be on a holiday weekend. (The players) were able to write their own story and write their own challenge, and that's what this ultimately is."
The Blue Devils (9-2, 5-2 ACC) have won seven straight to tie the program's single-season record for victories, while the Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3) have won five straight to dig out from a 1-5 start and become bowl eligible.
If Duke can beat North Carolina for the second straight year, the Blue Devils will face No. 2 Florida State in Charlotte next week for Duke's first ACC title since 1989.
"I said a long time ago I think people would doubt us for a while that we were going to be able to make it to the championship, and now we're in position to do that," Duke linebacker Kelby Brown said. "It doesn't get much bigger than this."
The Tar Heels are still irked by losing to the Blue Devils — UNC's first loss in the series since 2003 — on a last-second touchdown in last year.
"Regardless of playing in the ACC championship or not, there's still a lot to play for," UNC freshman receiver Ryan Switzer said. "We want to send these seniors out with a win against Duke in their final year. If we can beat them and keep them home for the ACC championship game and send one of these other teams, we'd love to do it."
Here are five things to watch in Saturday's Duke-North Carolina game:
SWITZER'S RETURNS: Switzer has returned four punts for touchdowns in the past three games, tying an ACC single-season record and an NCAA record for consecutive games with a TD punt return. Coach Larry Fedora said Switzer has improved significantly in understanding the blocking schemes on returns, which has allowed Switzer to score on returns of 61, 65, 65 and 85 yards in that span. He also had two long TD catches last week in the 80-20 rout of Old Dominion.
RUNNING BLUE DEVILS: Duke is having its most successful rushing season in more than three decades, running for 179 yards per game with a rotation at running back and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Connette. Duke ran for 358 yards in a win against Miami two weeks ago but managed just 121 while grinding out a tough win at Wake Forest last week. The Tar Heels have played better defense in the second half of the season, but they can't afford to let the Blue Devils turn in a big rushing performance.
ANSWERING THE BELL: The Tar Heels have built big first-half leads in each of their past three games, though they had to turn away a second-half comeback to win at Pittsburgh. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, have trailed 10-0 and 14-0 in their last two games. Duke doesn't want a repeat against a UNC team brimming with confidence and eager to get back the Victory Bell that goes to the winner of the long-running rivalry.
GOAL TO GO: Duke is one of two teams nationally — division member Georgia Tech is the other — that has converted every goal-to-go chance into a touchdown. The Blue Devils have scored touchdowns on 22 chances, with Connette running for 13 scores.
EBRON'S FINALE: UNC junior tight end Eric Ebron said Monday he will enter the NFL draft after the season, turning Saturday into an early Senior Day for him. Ebron will fall short of Fedora's preseason target of 12 touchdown catches and hasn't reached the end zone since his 199-yard day against Miami on Oct. 17, but he can still change the game if Marquise Williams can connect wit