by Mike Potter
Saturday will be a really important day for the Triangle’s three ACC football teams, and none of them will be favored.
UNC (5-2, 1-2 ACC) will visit surprising No. 8 Clemson (7-0, 4-0) at Death Valley at noon.
At 12:30, Duke (3-3, 1-1) will host unlikely nemesis Wake Forest (4-2, 3-1) at Wallace Wade Stadium.
And at 3:30, N.C. State (3-3, 0-2) will visit Virginia (4-2, 1-1) at Scott Stadium.
Interim coach Everett Withers’ Tar Heels, who come in as 10 ½-point underdogs, they look for the final win they need to qualify for a bowl game for the fourth straight year. UNC, which trails the series 34-19-1, topped the Tigers 21-16 last season in Chapel Hill.
“We can’t turn the ball over in the kicking game, and we have got to continue to get better at that,” Withers said. “We’ve put the ball on the ground a couple times on kickoff returns. We had two long touchdown passes (in last week’s 30-24 loss to Miami), so the emphasis we are going to have this week is really focusing in on being better fundamentally and technique-wise against the balls down the field. And we can do that. When you look at the tape, it’s more about positioning and technique and fundamentals and finishing. And if we can continue to do that, we’ll get better.
“Obviously, you want to capitalize on four-down opportunities, but we are going to be aggressive in that way. I want to stay aggressive, I want to get six points - I don’t want to get three, I want to get six. So that’s one reason will continue to do those type of things. But I think … we’re headed in the right direction.”
David Cutcliffe’s Blue Devils still have a shot at playing in their first bowl game since 1994, but it’s hard to see the Blue Devils making it without a home-field win over the Deacons. Wake Forest, which has won 11 straight in a series it trails 53-36-2, is a 3½-point favorite.
“We’re playing what I think is the best Wake team since we’ve played them at Duke,” Cutcliffe said. “They’ve done a nice job of revving this team up. On defense, they’ve got five redshirt seniors and four redshirt juniors and a redshirt sophomore and a redshirt freshman, which tells you a little bit about what they’ve done. And it pays off. Those guys are playing like veterans.
“In their offense, they’ve got a real quality receiver and others, outstanding running backs and their quarterback playing well, which gives you a chance to play extremely well. They’ve balanced that with a good kicking game like they always have, and we’ve got a challenge. We can match the same type of play if you look at our team, other than being very young for the most part on defense, we’re similar in a lot of areas. It’s going to come down to execution. It’s going to come down to how well you prepare, how consistent you are in practice and how consistent you’re going to be in the ball game.”
And Tom O’Brien’s Wolfpack, which has picked up three non-conference wins in which it was the home favorite, is probably going to need to pick up at least one road win to go bowling again. Virginia is a 5 ½-point favorite in a series that hasn’t been contested since 2007. State leads the series 33-21-1.
“(Virginia’s Mike London) is a really good coach. He’s passionate, really enthusiastic. He’s a defensive side of the ball coach. He’s always coached defense. He’s been the coordinator on defense down there. Their defense is really sound. (and) It’s a big powerful football team on both sides of the ball. Nine of their 11 guys on defense are juniors and seniors. There’s a lot of experience back there. …
“(State QB Mike Glennon) gets better (every game) in his decision-making process. That has become pretty apparent. He’s putting the ball to the right guy at the right time now. As we go along, a lot of those things are allowing him to become more of a leader on the offense. He’s taking a little bit of control in the huddle now, whereas before he was worried about doing his job. He’s got his job figured out. He did a nice job at the end of the last game milking the clock and running it out as we were able to make first downs. All those things go into being a good quality quarterback.”