CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Duke has already secured bowl eligibility. Now coach David Cutcliffe wants a strong finish to the regular season.
The Blue Devils host rival North Carolina in Durham on Saturday knowing they’re headed to a postseason game. But they haven’t won two straight games since September, either.
“We can’t afford to be up and down,” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to finish this thing out. November needs to be special for us.”
Duke (6-3, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) can match its win total for last season, which ended with a win against Northern Illinois in the Quick Lane Bowl. Beating the Tar Heels would also ensure the program’s fifth winning season in six years, the first time the program’s done that since the 1960s.
And they’re playing to keep the Victory Bell presented to the winner of the annual instate rivalry. Duke has won the past two meetings and four of the past six since Larry Fedora took over at UNC.
The Blue Devils are coming off a road win against Miami, and still have a cross-divisional game at No. 2 Clemson next week followed by the regular-season finale at home against Wake Forest on Nov. 24.
“You don’t get hoggish,” Cutcliffe said. “I do know how to count to six (wins for bowl eligibility). That’s important. But at the same time, this team should be focused on what lies ahead potentially. . I know that our seniors and upperclassmen in general expect more from this team and themselves.”
Things have been much tougher for the Tar Heels (1-7, 1-5), who have lost several close games and are headed for a second straight bowl-less finish. UNC is in the midst of a two-year slide that has seen the Tar Heels lose 19 of 24 games since November 2016, a stretch that began with a loss at Duke.
“It’s definitely not easy,” UNC quarterback Nathan Elliott said of staying positive. “But these guys in this locker room and these coaches have done a great job of keeping everyone focused and moving forward.”
Here are some other things to know about Saturday’s UNC-Duke game:
The close losses have piled up for the Tar Heels, including a mistake-filled home game to Virginia Tech and a double-overtime loss at No. 13 Syracuse. Fedora has said his team is “extremely close” to coming up with the play or two needed to win a game.
“It’s making sure they know that every play could be the difference in the game,” Fedora said. “That’s the way you have to play the game.”
Duke receiver Johnathan Lloyd said the Blue Devils won’t expect an easy game despite UNC’s record. Besides, there’s a recent reminder from two years ago when the Tar Heels arrived with a No. 15 national ranking to face a Duke team that hadn’t won an ACC game — and lost.
“They’re better than 1-7,” Lloyd said. “You turn on the tape, they’re not a bad football team. They’ve had some breaks go against them. . We have to come out and play, and if we don’t, we can get beat.”
Duke leads the ACC in red-zone defense, allowing opponents to score on 17 of 24 trips inside the 20-yard line (nearly 71 percent). Thirteen of those scores have been touchdowns, with only two through the air.
When asked recently what was the biggest factor in UNC’s two-year slide, Fedora pointed to turnovers and failing to take care of the football.
The Tar Heels rank near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision ranks in turnover margin at minus-1 per game, which is 13th in the 14-team ACC. Last weekend’s loss to Georgia Tech offered an example of how much it has hindered the Tar Heels; they rallied from 18 down in the third quarter to tie the game, only to have Elliott throw two fourth-quarter interceptions as the Yellow Jackets went on to win.
They can’t keep repeating those same mistakes if they want to win another ACC game.