“Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door.”
The refrain in Dylan’s 1973 masterpiece could apply to both teams playing football Saturday in Kenan Stadium, a game which by all measures could be a classic in its own right.
For Duke, it means an unwanted visitor crashing the party of a team on the way to its own version of Heaven, Blue Heaven, with a Coastal Division championship and shot at the ACC football title in Charlotte.
For Carolina, it means fulfilling the oft-stated and long-awaited goal of returning prominence to a program rich with promise but falling short on performance.
One team’s Heaven in this case will surely be the other team’s Hell.
The Blue Devils are coming off their own trip to Hades, the more-than-bizarre last six seconds against Miami that turned a sure seventh victory into their first ACC defeat of the season and makes Saturday a must win to keep alive playing for the ACC championship a second time in three years.
Duke, 6-2, had won a game it seemingly lost for about 57 minutes, despite 20 penalties committed by the Hurricanes who had their own week from hell with the firing of Coach Al Golden and the death of a player’s parent who was a godmother to the rest of the team. Then, aided by three pass interference penalties that all looked pretty bogus, the Blue Devils drove to the apparent winning score with six seconds left on the clock.
The ACC – in a ruling every bit as bizarre as Miami’s eight-lateral kickoff return that began at its own 25-yard line, retreated at one point to the 5 and then swept down the left sideline to the end zone – suspended the officiating and replay crews for blowing the management and communication of the last play more than any particular call they made.
Duke will be madder than hell while knocking on Blue Heaven’s door at high noon Saturday, another strange starting time for one of the biggest games of the season that deservedly belongs in the 3:30 or later TV slots. The annual Battle for the Bell (reclaimed with a sloppy and expensive paint job last year) will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
Kenan Stadium has its first sellout in years, but rest assured the lady in the pines won’t be full for kickoff. Traffic snarls caused by the early start, the threat of rain and the lethargic culture surrounding Carolina football will assure that. Good seats are going for more than $100 (twice face value), which isn’t exactly Duke-Carolina hoops fare but better than the 10-dollar ducats usually available outside both football stadia. With every ticket apparently sold, the old girl should be full and rocking at some point.
The Tar Heels, on the cusp of their greatest regular season in history, can open Heaven’s door by beating the Blue Devils for a second straight season (after two consecutive losses following a 21-1 run of dominance in the once-classic series) and then defeat Miami at home and struggling Virginia Tech and N.C. State on the road to post 11 regular-season wins for the first time in their 122 years of playing football. Not a given, by any means, but at least it’s all in their hands.
On paper, the game should resemble last season’s blowout at Wallace Wade Stadium more than Duke’s two straight wins that both went down to the last possession. UNC has the third-ranked offense in the country and Duke the supposed 10th rated defense. But with college coaches putting their best athletes on the scoring side of the ball these days, a good offense almost always beats a good defense. (Witness some of the numbers being put up every week.)
And the Tar Heels have a really good offense, despite naysayers looking at their schedule and crowing “prove it” against a good “D”. Duke has that, for sure, holding opponents to 295 total yards per game. Carolina, on the other side, averages 37 points and 470 yards. So something’s gotta give, right?
UNC can take a quarter off (i.e., vs. Wake Forest) and still hang 50 points on the scoreboard. Twelve of its 35 touchdowns have come on plays longer than 20 yards, which means the No. 21-ranked Heels are snapping the ball fewer times than any team in the current top 25. Their 7.65 yards per play is third behind only unbeaten Baylor and TCU, which take turns ringing up 70 points.
The theory is that Duke’s methodical-but-efficient offense cannot outscore Carolina’s quick-strike, multi-weaponed attack, and that’s a sound theory. The Tar Heels will have to help Duke by making uncharacteristic mistakes and turning the ball over on their own end of the field. Duke is smart, well-coached and generally does not beat itself (except on a last-second kickoff that resembled a game of old intramural Carolina Tag).
You know all the players on UNC’s explosive offense and improved, opportunistic defense. For Duke, except for over-hyped linebacker Jeremy Cash, you may need a game program or listen closely to the radio or TV announcers. But the beauty of this 98th renewal is that both teams have, at least for the moment, built solid programs that already have gone 3-0 against preseason Coastal favorites Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech, both frankly looking to be in decline.
Neither Tech is knocking on any door right now and, pretty much, playing out the 2015 string. In contrast, the team that finishes with the most points Saturday in Chapel Hill will feel like victory has been Heaven sent.