Saturday night in Durham, Carolina and Duke will face off in a game that will have huge implications at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. It's a familiar scenario, only this matchup will take place on the football field. Both teams are 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play. The winner could position itself as the favorite in the Coastal Division. But beyond the consequences of the outcome, this is a rivalry, first and foremost.
It was the late 1940s when the late Norm Sper, then Carolina's head cheerleader, introduced the Victory Bell to the Carolina-Duke football series. The old train bell was mounted on a cart and became symbolic of the rivalry. Win the game, paint the cart in your shade of blue. Defend it the next year, like a championship belt.
That cart has been Carolina blue for the last eight years, and Carolina has won 22 of 23 in the rivalry dating back to 1990. But each game is its own animal, and David Cutcliffe has the Blue Devils believing in themselves and on the verge of a bowl bid (a win Saturday would be Duke's sixth). Carolina is serving a one-year postseason ban and thus won't play a game past the season finale on November 24. Still, they can certainly play spoiler.
"We're here to ruin it for other people. They're next on the list." linebacker Kevin Reddick said this week. "That's how we're taking this thing. We know we can't win a trophy, but we can spoil it for other people, go 10-2 and make ourselves happy at the end of the day."
So though the Tar Heels won't have a chance to hoist a bowl championship trophy, they do have a chance Saturday to retain the championship belt, er, bell. The Victory Bell is a tangible, audible symbol, an icon that represents performance in this 15-501 Fight. After practice Wednesday, several Tar Heels took turns ringing the bell, just as they hope to do Saturday. "It means a lot," Sylvester Williams said. "I want to be able to take a picture in front of that bell and be able to say the 2012 team got it done and kept that thing here. It’s a tradition that I think we need to keep going and at the end of the day, we’re fighting for something bigger than a bowl game. We’re fighting because we’re family. We’re fighting for each other. They’re fighting to go to a bowl game, we’re fighting for family."
One could be forgiven for thinking that because one team has dominated the series of late, this match up might not be perceived as a rivalry. One would be wrong (see UNC/NC State, 2007-present). "It absolutely feels like a rivalry," left guard Jonathan Cooper said. "One thing that helps that is the Victory Bell. That's a sense of pride for us, to have it out here at practice and to hear people ringing it. Nobody wants to see you lose that game and them paint it right there out on the field."
Larry Fedora will coach his first game in this rivalry, and he's not underestimating the Blue Devils. "They wouldn't be 5-2 if they didn't believe, and they believe," he said. "They plan on getting bowl-eligible, and they plan on doing it against us." Fedora said were the Tar Heels to lose, the Victory Bell would be conspicuous by its absence. "That's probably a good way of putting it," he said.
So Tar Heels old and new understand the significance of the Victory Bell. But how to go about defending it? "We've got to go out and start fast," Williams said. "I feel like our offense has been very electric and been able to jump on teams here lately. Our defense, pumped and ready to go, has got to keep them on the ground." As they do every week, the defense will try to hold down the Blue Devil attack and get the ball back to an offense that has been averaging nearly 40 points per contest during the current four-game win streak. "That's what's been keeping us successful these last few weeks, and that's what we plan to continue to do: play disciplined football. Smart, fast and physical."
The Duke offense will try to move ball against Carolina's 4-2-5 defense. It's a scheme that they're familiar with, as the Blue Devils run the 4-2-5 themselves. No one team has an advantage in that respect, but there is a familiarity. "You know some things, how you want to attack it because you work against it all year," Fedora said. "Defensively, you see similar things, so you know how they're going to try to attack you.
"I don't seen that there's an advantage one way or the other, so I think it's going to be about us preparing the right way and coming out and playing with the energy level that we need to play."
Despite their comfort level with the 4-2-5, Reddick said the Tar Heels will rely on their athleticism and speed in executing the scheme. "You can prepare all week for something that you've been seeing for a long time, until the team just brings something new, until it actually happens in your face," he said. "I don't think you can prepare for the tempo on three days' worth of practice."
On the other side of the ball, the Blue Devils will contend with one of the nation's best running backs behind one of the nation's best offensive lines. "They've got a handful, with the O-line we've got, and the running back we have as well," Williams said. "I would hate to be out there trying to tackle Giovani Bernard, or go up against Jonathan Cooper."
At about 10:30 Saturday night, Carolina will either be ringing the Victory Bell or Duke will be hauling it off and shaking cans of spraypaint. The preceding hours will determine that. "It would hurt me to lose that bell. It's something special to the team and the university," Reddick said. "I've never not had it." Here's hoping Reddick rings it one more time.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly.
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