For a while there, Saturday’s football game between North Carolina and Duke was shaping up to be an extremely meaningful affair.
Not as meaningful as when the neighboring rivals play in basketball, mind you.
But if the Tar Heels and Blue Devils had both won their respective games last week, this one would have been for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Even though neither did thanks to losses in the state of Virginia, relegating the matchup back to one of local interest, there’s still plenty for which to play. Not only are both still mathematically in the division race, they both still have work to do to accomplish the goal of bowl eligibility.
And, oh yeah, there’s that little matter of the Victory Bell and the shade of blue it’s painted when it’s rolled out of Kenan Stadium on Saturday night.
“We’re going to have to pick it up since we know they’re going to pick it up,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of Duke at his regular weekly press conference on Monday. “Because they’re disappointed in their performance Saturday in Virginia.”
The Blue Devils (4-3, 2-2 ACC) were on the short end of a 48-14 whipping at the hands of Coastal favorite Virginia in Charlottesville, a game their coach David Cutcliffe summed up as “horrific.”
It’s the kind of beatdown that can linger with a team that had been playing well coming into the game. But Cutcliffe doesn’t foresee that as being a problem this time because of the opponent that’s waiting for Duke in its next game.
“When you have a big game, you better turn it around,” Cutcliffe said Tuesday. “What I told them up there Saturday night (was that) this has been a horrific setback today and it was. It hurt. But it can’t be a setback tomorrow.
“I thought they did a good job. Certainly knowing that you’re playing a rival and another conference game you don’t have the luxury to let it linger.”
The same can be said for the Tar Heels, whose 43-41 loss at Virginia Tech in six overtimes might have been even more difficult to get over.
UNC (3-4, 2-2) had several chances to win in the extra periods, twice missing field goals that would have clinched the game — a factor that has led Brown to change kickers, benching Noah Ruggles for Saturday’s game in favor of freshman walk-on Jonathan Kim.
Adding to the sting of the defeat is the fact that all four of their losses this season have been decided on the final possession of regulation or overtime.
“We could very easily be 7-0, 6-1 or 0-7,” Brown said. “Every game has come down to the end. So they are giving us what they’ve got. … I think that’s just what I told the guys. We’re close. We’re improving.
“So let’s don’t feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s play better and get rejuvenated here for Duke. We haven’t had a good record against Duke the last seven years, so we need to pick it up and start worrying about next week.”
Brown is right about the Blue Devils’ recent dominance in the series. They’ve taken home the Victory Bell the past three years and after five of the last seven meetings — including two of the three most recent trips to Chapel Hill.
That’s a complete role reversal from the previous stretch in which UNC won 21 times in 22 meetings between Brown’s first tenure with the Tar Heels in 1990 through 2011.
Neither coach could pinpoint a reason why the momentum between the rivals has shifted so dramatically, but they both agree that on this occasion a lot more than just bragging rights will be on the line.
Duke still needs two more wins to earn bowl eligibility for a school-record fifth straight year. UNC’s situation is slightly more urgent, still three wins shy with five to play as it looks to return to the postseason for the first time since 2016.
“It’s always the biggest one when it’s the next one, but this is Duke-North Carolina,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s always, hopefully, going to have a lot at stake, and this one certainly does with both of us battling to maintain the ability to stay in the Coastal Division race.”