Beyond the ACCtion: High Emotions, High Stakes

Photo: Duke RB Shaquille Powell 
Credit: Grant Shorin

Thursday night game carries Coastal Division, bowl game implications

GREENSBORO, N.C. ( – Duke and North Carolina are about to show a national television audience what their fans have known from day one.

This is a football rivalry, too.

It always has been, but it holds especially true when the teams meet in late November with stakes at their highest. Such will be the case on in this week’s Thursday Night ESPN game, as the Tar Heels make the short drive over to face the Blue Devils in Wallace Wade Stadium. Kickoff is set for shortly after 7:30 p.m.

The equation for each side is pretty simple.

A Duke win over UNC and in the regular-season finale against Wake Forest puts the Blue Devils in Charlotte on Dec. 6 opposite Florida State in the Dr Pepper ACC Football Championship Game for the second straight year. The 25th-ranked Blue Devils would own 10 wins, a milestone that hadn’t been reached in program history prior to last season.

A Duke loss in either game sends Georgia Tech to Charlotte as the outright Coastal Division champion.

A North Carolina win tonight or against NC State on Nov. 29 makes the Tar Heels bowl eligible for a second straight year. Wins in both games would improve UNC’s record to 7-5 and raise its postseason stock. 

UNC head coach Larry Fedora wants his team only looking as far as the task at hand on Thursday night.

“I’ll be honest here, we haven’t even talked about a bowl game,” Fedora said. “We really haven’t. I don’t have any doubt that our team is going to prepare and be ready to play … I really do, I believe that. For that, maybe (the chance to earn bowl eligibility) helps. We plan on being in a bowl game, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t know if it matters who we play. But I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”

Clearly, more is at stake than mere possession of the Victory Bell that goes to the winner of this game each season – though no one is downplaying the significance of that either.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity for our university, for our fan base … and certainly for our players it’s a great thing,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “It’s a chance to showcase a great rivalry in all of college sports. It really doesn’t matter what sport it is when you’re this close and the two institutions have as much pride in what we do as we do. It doesn’t get much better than that. 

“It’s fun for the nation to see it from a football perspective, quite frankly, because they really haven’t in quite some time.”

We’ve caught glimpses in recent years. After dropping 22 of the previous 23 meetings in the series – some in excruciating fashion – the Blue Devils clipped the Tar Heels two seasons ago at Wallace Wade by a 33-30 score on wide receiver Jamieson Crowder’s dramatic fourth-down touchdown reception with 13 seconds showing on the clock. That victory made Duke bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994.

“I think the biggest part was at home, we had a crowd that was absolutely a part of that game,” said Cutcliffe, who will look for more of the same on Thursday night. “We had a crowd that we hadn’t seen here prior to that. That was significant to our players and significant to our staff, to feel that emotion and intensity of that stadium. The atmosphere made something feel like a football rivalry.”

The Blue Devils now own a two-game winning streak in the series, thanks to last season’s two-point win over the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill that clinched Duke’s first Coastal Division crown. 

Those past two years will be very much on the minds of UNC’s players come Thursday night – among other things.

“You’re going to see a lot of guys flying around out there,” Tar Heel senior safety Tim Scott said. “We have a lot going for us in this game. This game could get us bowl eligible, we could get the (Victory Bell) back and we can beat Duke. Three things in one game. That’s enough motivation as it is.”