ACC Football 2013 Payback Games: North Carolina

North Carolina Remembers Handing Duke a Bowl Bid in 2012

Last Season, North Carolina’s Weak Defense Handed Duke its First Bowl Bid in 18 years

Every team in the ACC has a couple games they wish they had back from 2012. Whether they didn’t bring their A-game, or the other guys just got lucky, every school would love another shot at an opponent, for the ability to prove it won’t happen again. Luckily, because of conference play and parity in the ACC, many will get a chance at redemption immediately, with rematches already on the books for 2013.

As part of our 2013 college football season preview, we’ll be running through the biggest “payback” games for each school. As no team finished with just one loss, there are likely multiple choices for each — none more “right’ than another, necessarily. Still, every selection should help provide some extra motivation for fans as they gear up for this season’s slate of games.

Team: North Carolina Tar Heels

Opponent: Duke Blue Devils

Last Year: Loss, 33-30 at Duke

This Year: November 30 vs. Duke

With a little over three minutes to go against rival Duke, North Carolina looked like they’d completed an improbable comeback. Despite being down 23-9 at the end of the third quarter, and looking listless on offense throughout the contest, the Tar Heels had caught fire in the fourth, moving the ball with the fervor fans had been accustomed to all season. Holding a 30-26 lead against a deflated Blue Devils squad, victory seemed assured. But three minutes, 87 yards and three third-and-long conversions later, Duke receiver Jamison Crowder found himself holding the game-winning touchdown. It would be the sixth win of the season for Duke — a team that had failed to reach that plateau at any other point since 1994.

And North Carolina had to watch all that. The miraculous fourth-down touchdown toss. The thwarted lateral play to end the game. And then, the resilient Duke faithful rushing the field against their archrivals. The Tar Heels were not going bowling in 2012 thanks to a postseason ban. This game, however, felt like they’d just lost a championship. After 18 seasons of pointing and laughing at Blue Devils football, the shoe now appeared to be on the other foot.

This year, the characters are different — Duke loses Sean Renfree and Conner Vernon, while UNC loses Giovani Bernard — but the stakes may end up being even higher. After last year’s frenzied finish in front of a sizable ESPN audience, the 2013 version of the game is set for the final weekend of the season. Though the Blue Devils are not expected to be in the running for a division title, this one could mean bowl eligibility, or even a role as spoiler to UNC’s division title hopes. But North Carolina can learn from last year’s mistakes, despite losing its top playmaker (Bernard).

Admittedly, the Carolina offense did struggle for a good portion of the contest last year, but the issue was really with the defense. Allowing Duke to go nine-for-18 on third down, letting up 510 yards (234 on the ground)… this was what caused the loss in the end. Duke’s Renfree had too much time to just stand and deliver pinpoint passes, plus UNC couldn’t get past Duke’s line to stop the run either. This season, they’ll be reliant on Kareem Martin and Tim Jackson to carry most of that load. Both were there last season, but the hope now is that the two seniors can apply their experience better against both the rush and pass. An effective push at the line should take the stress off the secondary too, which got burned in several games last season (this one included). It’s not a blueprint for how to beat Duke exclusively, but it’s those elements that should ultimately guide the Tar Heels to success or failure throughout this promising campaign.

Previously: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Louisville, Maryland, Miami, NC State

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