WALLACE WADE STADIUM/DURHAM David Cutcliffe knew when the season started that his Duke football team’s game at UNC on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. was going to be a big deal.
And he hoped it would be as big as it actually is.
For the first time in quite a while, the Blue Devils are in November with the chance to achieve a lot of dreams that might please some teams that have been more successful of late.
If the Blue Devils win one more game in their last four, they will avoid a losing season for the first time since 1994. If they win two, they will go to a bowl for the first time in 15 years. If they win out, they will be in the ACC Championship Game.
Duke (5-3, 3-1) is on a three-game winning streak, coming off a huge 28-17 win at Virginia on Saturday. UNC (5-3, 1-3) is also coming off a huge victory, a 20-17 win at Virginia Tech on Thursday night in what Coach Butch Davis had called his team’s toughest game of the season back in the summer.
The Tar Heels won’t be ACC champions, but both teams know that with two more wins they’re going bowling
“It’s obviously a big week,” Duke’s second-year head coach said during his weekly press luncheon at the Brooks Football Building. “I think it’s great for this area that there’s interest on both sides in this ball game. From what I understand tickets are beyond scarce. They’re out. That’s a great thing.
“I’m sure it will be a great atmosphere, a tough atmosphere for us. It’ll be a great thing. It’s great for the Triangle. We’re a point where we’re competitive. They’ve been more than competitive and we’ve stepped up. It’s added a little fuel to the fire since it’s such a big game for both teams.”
Though Thaddeus Lewis has been outstanding at quarterback during the winning streak, the difference in wins over N.C. State, Maryland and Virginia has been second-half defense.
“From the point Virginia went ahead 17-12 (on Saturday) our defense became the best unit on the field,” Cutcliffe said. “They were better than Virginia’s defense and they were better than Duke’s offense, they were better than Virginia’s offense. They were the dominant force on the field. It was pretty special. That helps you win games in the fourth quarter. The speed of the game, the intensity level, it kind of got turned up a notch and that’s how you win games in the fourth quarter.”
UNC has won five straight in the series and 18 of the last 19, including a 28-20 victory in Durham last season. The game, played for the old “Victory Bell” with the Tar Heels leading the series 55-36-4, was the traditional season-ender for both teams. This time, though, UNC will finish with N.C. State and Duke with Wake Forest.
The senior Lewis said his Duke career will be missing something if the Blue Devils don’t win on Saturday.
“We don’t make the schedule so we can’t say it’s hard to play Carolina early in the season,” Lewis said. “But it is Carolina. The intensity on both sides is going to be the same no matter if it’s the first game of the season, now, or the last game.
“I haven’t beaten them since I’ve been here. It would mean a lot just to get the Bell back and have a little bragging rights to go out with a win against Carolina. Obviously winning on the road in a hostile environment would be huge.”
Tight end Brett Huffman, a redshirt junior, said the excitement within the program has been building every week.
“I’d be lying if I said this is not a great feeling and it hasn’t been fun to finally for once be in this position,” Huffman said. “But again we can’t be satisfied with just being in the position to make a bowl game or play in the ACC Championship. We have to go out there and do it. We know the implications of this game and what’s at stake. The guys who have been around here three or four years and played UNC a couple of times, we know tensions are high and that’s the way it should be.”