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STAKES HIGH IN TIS YEAR'S DUKE-UNC GAME
Scenarios and crazy math abounded throughout the month of November as pundits tried to decipher the Atlantic Coast Conference Coastal Division race. But as the regular season enters its final weekend, things are pretty simple for the Duke Blue Devils.
A road win at North Carolina on Saturday gives Duke the outright Coastal Division Championship, and coach David Cutcliffe’s team will head to Charlotte the following weekend to face Florida State in the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game.
A loss eliminates the Blue Devils from the ACC Championship Game and their only semblance of a consolation prize will be sharing the division title with at least two other teams – including the Tar Heels.
For those who have grown weary of waiting until February for a Duke-UNC rivalry game to hold ramifications beyond bragging rights, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Duke (9-2, 5-2) enters Saturday’s game on a definite uptick, having won seven straight to match the school record for overall wins and earn national ranking (No. 24) for the first time since 1994.
But the Tar Heels (6-5, 4-3) have been making waves of their own for the past month. With the season given up for lost after dropping five of its first six games, UNC has reeled off five straight wins to earn bowl eligibility. A win on Saturday would enhance the Tar Heels’ standing in the bowl pecking order and secure a share of the Coastal Division title – not to mention return the Victory Bell to Chapel Hill following last year’s crushing loss to the Blue Devils.
“What it’s ended up being is two teams that are on a win streak, that are playing as well as anybody in the league coming together, and it happens to be a rival game and it happens to be on a holiday weekend,” Cutcliffe said. “The (players) were able to write their own story and write their own challenge, and that’s what this ultimately is.”
Cutcliffe broke through with his first win in the rivalry last year in dramatic fashion, as Sean Renfree’s touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder on fourth down with 13 seconds left lifted the Blue Devils to a 33-30 victory at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“You really don’t have to ‘make’ it a big game,” Cutcliffe said. “Each year that I’ve been here, and particularly the first year, I’ve learned more about that rivalry than I had known before I came here. It’s unique to say the least just because of the locations and proximity of the two schools. But it has more meaning (this year) and I think that’s a good thing.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora said he and his team have not spent the week focusing on last year’s ill-fated ending in Durham – mainly because it hasn’t been necessary.
“We talked about it a little bit on Sunday, and that will be it really,” Fedora said. “That’s not something that we’ll spend a lot of time on because it won’t play a big role in what we do this year. It never does. Just like when we talk about the history of the series over something that happened 50 years ago isn’t going to have a real effect on our football team. We don’t spend a lot of time on it.”
MEANWHILE , IN CHARLOTTESVILLE …
A regular season-ending rivalry game with possible ACC Championship Game implications is also on tap later Saturday, as Virginia plays host to Virginia Tech. By the time the visiting Hokies take the field at 3:30 p.m., they should know the outcome of the Duke-UNC noon game and will know whether or not a victory could sent them to the ACC title game for the sixth time in nine years.
“I think if you can win a share of your side of it, that’s something you always shoot for,” Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer said. “If you win that, you have a chance to win the ACC. That would be a tough task, but you have a chance and that’s all you can ask for. If you can win the ACC then you’re going to the Orange Bowl. There’s a lot that we can be proud of.”
Even if the Hokies’ division title hopes are thwarted by a Duke win, don’t look for Virginia Tech (7-4, 4-3) to lack motivation. The Hokies, like North Carolina, can improve their postseason standing with a win. And the opponent is, after all, the Cavaliers.
“I think sometimes what happens is you get thinking about too many things, your mind is a little bit here and a little bit there,” Beamer said. “We don’t need to be thinking about anything else other than Virginia and that is the only thing we can control. Let’s put all our thoughts right there and whatever happens, happens, but let’s make sure we’re on one track and that’s Virginia.”
The Cavaliers (2-9, 0-7) have not won since Sept. 21 and have additional motivation of trying to avoid a winless season in conference play in addition to facing the rival Hokies.
“It's very important,” Virginia coach Mike London said of getting into the ACC win column. “You attack the competitive side of the guys and say, ‘Look, this is the reality of what's in front of us.’ The games, the lack of performance, the lack of points or giving up too many points (in past games) …. You talk about those things, what a win can do for you, and you always like to go out on a positive note. But it requires that kind of effort and that kind of energy to get that done. “
BLACK FRIDAY MEANS FOOTBALL
With a Friday afternoon game scheduled at Pitt, Miami head coach Al Golden won’t be home for Thanksgiving. But it’s all good, especially with the Hurricanes (8-3, 4-3) playing to enhance an already successful season.
“That comes with the territory, but my wife knows better,” Golden said. “She understands that. If I’m around, then it’s great, but generally I’m not. I will tell you that we are excited about not being around for the holidays -around Christmas and New Year’s and that area, finally (due to an upcoming bowl game). We’ll enjoy that experience with our team and coaches and staff. It goes with the territory. It is what it is. You have to make sure the team has enough leadership and everyone is focused on what we have to do.”
TALKING UP DONALD
One of Miami’s major concerns in going up against Pitt will be containing Panthers defensive tackle Aaron Donald, the Walter Camp Foundation’s National Defensive Player of the Week and a finalist for virtually every national season honor for which he is eligible.
“It’s great to be able to talk about him, but he still puts himself out there,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “The production he’s coming up with (is) not just statistically but they’re at big moments. He’s having an unbelievable season. He’s getting mentioned for different awards, I like that part because I think it’s really well deserved because he’s doing it on the field. He’s playing at as high of a level as anyone I’ve been around, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be around some good ones.”
Off the field, Chryst said Donald is the same person he has known since he took over as Pitt head coach.
“It doesn’t change him at all and the way he approaches it,” Chryst said. “He hasn’t changed one bit. I don’t think he’s naïve and not appreciative of it because he wouldn’t disrespect those conversations, but I don’t think that’s what’s driving him.”
SIXTH WOULD MEAN 11
If Syracuse is able to win Saturday’s home game against Boston College, a record 11 ACC teams will be bowl eligible. The Orange (5-6, 3-4) came ever-so-close to getting the necessary sixth win last week against Pitt but came up on the short end of a 17-16 score.
“You just want to win and win the next game and then win the next game,” head coach Scott Shafer said. “I don’t know, maybe it was just pounded into my head since I was a little guy that if you just take care of the things you can take care of then the rest will just take care of itself. I never focus on much more than that.”
“It’s a six inch deal,” Shafer added in regard to the near-miss against Pitt. “We came up six inches short in this past game in so many areas. Almost a diving catch for a touchdown, we had a blocked kick, almost a fake … almost doesn’t cut it. We had too many almosts, so how do we fix them?”
For all the talk of Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Duke-UNC and Virginia-Virginia Tech, Boston College coach Steve Addazio noted that his team is renewing a series with Syracuse that offers a lot in terms of a colorful past and tradition.
“Obviously I’ve been on the other side of this thing when I coached at Syracuse (as an assistant),” Addazio said. “I know how important and how big this game was. It was a red-letter game for us, one that was down on our schedule that we knew early on it was going to come down to playing BC in the end. It’s a huge game. It’s regionally big. Recruiting-wise, it’s big. It’s northeast big.”
And now it is an ACC game, one Addazio feels is worthy of closing the curtain on the regular season.
“It’s the second-longest rivalry for BC other than Holy Cross,” Addazio noted. “Our first game against SU was in 1924 so it’s really been a long series. The last time we played was in 2010 at the Carrier Dome, we won 16-6 and it was the regular season finale. Andre Williams broke the rushing attempt record with 42. There’s some history here going back to ’84 with Doug Flutie, we beat Syracuse at Gillette Stadium. “There’s just a lot of intertwined history between both schools. Coach [Tom] Coughlin played there and coached here. It’s been a pretty great rivalry and I’m really excited to rekindle it and get that going. That, to me, is what college football is all about.”
It hasn’t been the season NC State first-year head coach Dave Doeren envisioned, but he says the Wolfpack (3-9, 0-7) still has much to play for when it hosts Maryland in Saturday’s season finale.
“It’s senior week and Thanksgiving week,” Doeren noted. It’s an honor to be in this week of the season as a coach. You go through a series of lasts with guys who have put in a lot of time, a lot of energy and a lot of work … like everybody who goes to college, a lot of growth in their time at NC State. I know a lot of the guys, even though I’ve only had them nine to ten months, have grown a lot this year. As a coach, it’s always one of the biggest honors to send those guys out the way they want to be with a win. That will be our entire mindset of the week, helping our seniors walk out of Carter-Finley the way they want to.”
Senior Days come and go, but each is unique, for obvious reasons.
“It’s the last time we’ll be together as a team – this team,” Doeren said. “Next year’s team will be a different team. It will be 21 less guys and 26 new guys. As hard as it’s been we’ve grown very close as a team and these guys want to see our seniors finish the season the way they want to finish it. Playing at home, playing an ACC team at home and playing in our last game with these guys is enough of a reason for these guys to want to play well.”
STILL A PART
For the second consecutive season, Maryland’s Randy Edsall has faced a task no head coach relishes doing on large scale: making sure injured players remain involved and feel a part of team.
“Deon (Long) and Stefon (Diggs) have been around,” Edsall said of his two injured wide receivers. “They haven’t been traveling or on the practice field, because of being on crutches. They are here for dinner and for other team events.”
Other players, such as injured senior cornerback Dexter McDougle, have been on the practice field and have been a constant presence mentoring other players at his position.
“That just gets another coach on the field and another set of eyes to help those guys,” Edsall said. “So as they are watching their position, they can be talking to those guys and making corrections. I think it’s been very beneficial and even a way of therapy for those (injured) guys.”
JACKETS FACE NEW QB
When Georgia Tech plays host to Georgia on Saturday, the visiting Bulldogs will be without standout quarterback Aaron Murray, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last weekend.
“Clearly, the guy has been a tremendous football player at Georgia,” Tech coach Paul Johnson said of Murray. “He's had a great career and I have a great deal of respect for him. His competitive nature and the way he compete … he's brought them back so many times. It says all you need to know about him."
Murray will be replaced by highly-regarded reserve Hutson Mason. Johnson was asked if not having a lot of film of Mason to study in preparation for Saturday’s game would be an issue.
"You'd like to have the film, but no not really,” Johnson said. “You have to get ready for what they do. They're not going to totally change their offense in three days from what they've been doing for years. No matter who the quarterback has been they've run the same system. Now will they highlight him in what he does better? Sure. That's what they'll do.”
While the Yellow Jackets (7-4, 5-3) step out of the conference for their biggest rivalry game, they remain in contention to share the ACC Coastal Division title and even earn a spot in the Dr Pepper ACC Championship Game, depending on what happens in Friday and Saturday’s league games. But Johnson doesn’t plan on doing a lot of scoreboard watching from afar.
“I learned a long time ago to try not to worry about things I can't control,” he said. “That's out of our control. Could it happen? I could see it happening. I think two of the teams we need to win may even be favored. But that's something that's out of our control. We could have taken care of that at Clemson (a loss in the Yellow Jackets’ ACC finale on Nov. 14), and we didn't."
PERFECT MEANS PRESSURE
With Florida State carrying an 11-0 record into Saturday’s game at rival Florida, head coach Jimbo Fisher and his players are facing the inevitable questions about remaining unbeaten and maintaining at least their current No. 2 spot in the BCS standings.
“The thing is, it’s like anything in life, when you become outcome-oriented, you start worrying about the outcome and where you’re going to be – that’s where you get in trouble,” Fisher said. “We say, ‘Stay in the moment, stay in the process.’ We say it, and it’s the truth. We can’t worry about the outcome. What we have to do is worry about playing well this weekend in Gainesville and if we do that, then the outcomes come.
“When you’re asked about it and you’re 18-22 years old, they can create distractions. It’s how much you believe in the system we have and what’s going on, and can you compartmentalize all the other things and the questions that are going on about that.”
While Fisher says his team can’t be distracted by the questions and hype concerning a possible unbeaten season, he also understands them.
“It is very tough,” Fisher said. “If it wasn’t tough, people would do it all the time.”
SWINNEY ON CLOWNEY
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows that some expected more from South Carolina defensive Jadeveon Clowney this season in terms of quarterback sacks and total tackles. But Swinney said Clowney remains a focal point of the Tigers’ preparation as they get ready to meet the Gamecocks on Saturday.
“It is not all about stats,” Swinney said.” That guy is impacting the game every snap that he is in the game. Whether he is sacking a guy or making a tackle or not, he is impacting the game. He is an elite football player and everybody tries to have a plan for him.”
And even planning for Clowney had its downside, Swinney said.
“Everybody is so worried about him that all of their other guys are making all these plays,” Swinney said. “All of those guys can play, and they have a bunch of good players in that front. They move him around and he is difficult to handle because he plays on both sides. We have to play a good football game. We play a lot of good football players and he is one of those guys that you have to know where he is at all times.”
Wake Forest (4-7) fell short in its bid to play in a bowl game this season, but the Demon Deacons will try to close out on a high note when they travel to Vanderbilt on Saturday. And regardless of the outcome, head coach Jim Grobe says his senior class can honestly say it gave its best effort as a collective group.
"I think the thing that stands out with most of our seniors is that they've kind of maxed out what they can do,” Grobe said “We may see a couple of guys that could have played better or could of had better careers, but most of these guys in the senior class really tried every year to be the best they could be and that's what you feel good about. I think these guys are a pretty close group and they care about each other and they've just tried as much as possible to be the best players they can be in our program."
While Grobe will be sad to bid farewell to this year’s class, he sounded optimistic as he looked ahead.
On one hand, it's discouraging to see the seniors go, but you know you've got so many young kids that you're looking forward to coaching,” Grobe said. “We'll certainly miss a lot of these guys in the senior class, but I think at the same time we're looking forward to a fresh start with the younger guys."