By AL FEATHERSTON
Duke and North Carolina usually play at the end of the season.
But when the two old rivals meet Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium it will be just the eighth of 12 games for each team this season. It will be the earliest Duke-Carolina football game since World War II.
That's okay with David Cutcliffe.
"Since I've been here, we've had two home games against them and our students were gone," the Duke coach said. "It's been on Thanksgiving weekend. We didn't have very many people. I know that traditionalists don't like that, but I'm all about getting an opportunity to play in front of a home crowd."
Duke and North Carolina last played in October in 1943, when the Blue Devils beat the Tar Heels on Oct. 16. But there are a couple of oddities about that season. Duke and UNC actually met twice in 1943, with Duke winning the second game in the season finale on Nov. 20.
That turned out to be the first time in the 20th Century that the two rivals closed the season against each other. That became the rule - between 1943 and 2011, Duke and UNC met in the finale in 63 of 68 years.
Two of the exceptions were dictated by misfortune - in 1964, a hurricane postponed Duke's early season trip to Tulane and the game was rescheduled after the Carolina game. And in 2001, the Duke-Clemson game was postponed in the wake of the 9/11 disaster and rescheduled after the UNC game.
Twice, the Duke-UNC finale was superseded by special games. In 1960, Duke had a chance to play UCLA on national television in December. That was a rare enough event in that era that Duke made a scheduling exception. And in 1991, Duke had a chance to play Clemson in Tokyo late and made the trip to the Far East after playing UNC.
The only other exception was in 2009, when the ACC scheduled the Duke-UNC game on Nov. 7 - it was the ninth game of the season for the Blue Devils.
October ... November - that date doesn't matter to the Duke players.
"It's a little different, but we're excited to play them any time of year," quarterback Sean Renfree said. "It's always a big deal when it's Carolina."
The earliest Duke-UNC game is a matter of some debate. By one measure, the earliest of nine previous October matchups was Oct. 10, 1925 (back when Duke was still Trinity College). But the second game in the series was played March 8, 1889.
That's easily the earliest calendar date ... but it's also the latest date in the school year. So does that ancient game count as the earliest or the latest Duke-Carolina game?
Coach Cutcliffe is acutely aware of the fact that Duke hasn't held up its end of the rivalry in recent years. UNC has won 21 of the last 22 meetings to gain a big edge in a series that was fairly even in 1989 - when Steve Spurrier's Blue Devils routed UNC 41-0 in Kenan Stadium, that made the series just 37-35-4 in Carolina's favor.
UNC has usually been the much superior team in recent years.
But that's not so clear-cut going into this year's game. Both teams are 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the ACC. The Tar Heels did beat the Virginia Tech team that handed Duke its first ACC loss, but the Blue Devils beat the Wake Forest team that knocked off UNC.
It's the first time both teams have come into their annual matchup with winning records since 1994, when 7-3 UNC edged 8-2 Duke, 41-40, in one of the most thrilling games in the history of the rivalry.
"It's good to play in a Duke-Carolina game where both teams have solid records and are playing well," Cutcliffe said. "That's the way you want it to be. We're holding up our end of it to make it a little more of a rivalry."
The Duke players realize what is at stake.
"It's a huge week," senior defensive end Kenny Anunike said. "We're playing for that bell. And we're also playing for that sixth win that will make us bowl eligible. So a lot is on the table. There's no other game like Carolina. This is a huge rivalry."
Anunike mentioned the bell, referring to the Duke-UNC victory bell - which goes to the winning school to keep until the next year's game. The Victory Bell has been a tradition since 1948, but Duke has not had possession of the bell since 2003.
"I've never been able to ring the bell," junior cornerback Ross Cockrell said.
COPING WITH UNC'S TEMPO
First-year North Carolina coach Larry Fedora has installed a quick-strike, no-huddle offense that often tries to attack defenses by playing a super-fast tempo.
But that's a tactic that Duke has been working to combat.
"I told Jim Knowles in January," Cutcliffe said. "I did a big evaluation of our program that I do every year - and I said 'Everybody is playing fast offense. Let's set the tone for playing fast defense. Let's be able to play faster defense than everybody in the country.'
"We had to systematically change some of our verbiage, some of the things we're doing - not 'some', a lot. They did an excellent job of that."
Anunike said Duke put in a lot of work in last spring to cope with up-tempo offenses.
"Tempo, tempo, tempo - that's what Coach Cut is all about," Anunike said. "Our discipline and our conditioning are two major things we're built on.
"In the spring, the first defense would be standing out there and we'd have two offensive huddles. Both of them would get their calls and get ready. One would come out and we'd have that play, then they'll run off the field and the next offense will come out at us. It's like that - boom, boom, boom! Fire, fire, fire!
"So we're ready for it. We've been working on it since spring, so it's not anything new."
One key factor in UNC's tactic are the NCAA rules that give the offense control of the tempo. If the offense changes personnel, the officials are required to give the defense time to respond with their own substitutions. But if the offense doesn't change its lineup, the ball can be snapped at any time - and teams like UNC often catch defenses making situational changes on the fly.
"I thought they caught Miami a lot in the middle of substituting," Cutcliffe said. "So you have to be prepared."
He thinks that the Blue Devils are prepared - but the Duke coach emphasized that it takes more than good preparation.
"We're systematically able to match up," he said. "That's only a part of it. The other part of it is to play good defense, you have to be aligned. You have to have a good stance. You have to have your eyes where they should be. And when a team gets into warp speed, you still have to manage to do that."
Duke and North Carolina are alike in many ways. Both teams run a spread offense and both rely on a base 4-2-5 defense.
"We align the same way offensively, but our philosophies are different," Cutcliffe said. "We do run some of the same plays. That helps. I took the [second team] offense down against our defense and just ran our offense. In doing that, we're a little more efficient."
However, he said the similarities on defense were more superficial even though Fedora has installed the 4-2-5 alignment that Duke has been running since the middle of the 2010 season.
"Defensively, they configure the same way, but they're really different than we are," Cutcliffe said. "Philosophically, there's a pretty significant difference in the two defenses."
But quarterback Sean Renfree suggested that the similarity in the UNC and Duke defenses may help the Blue Devil offense.
"We see that every week in practice," he said. "They're fairly simple fundamentally, but they have great players. That's what makes their defense difficult to score on."
Duke entered the Virginia Tech game last week with a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum.
Then the Hokies erased a 20-0 Blue Devil lead and stormed back to record a 41-20 victory. That certainly stalled Duke's momentum.
But what will it do to the team's confidence?
"It's kind of like a slap in the face," Kenny Anunike said. "It will get us grounded again. We're back to where we need to be. We're still 5-2. That's a great record right now. A lot of teams can't say that. We still have a very good team. We had a minor setback. We've just got to bounce back."
Ross Cockrell pointed to Duke's earlier loss at Stanford.
"We went into the Stanford game with a lot of confidence, lost - then we responded well," he said.
Cutcliffe said he was confident that his team would not let the Virginia Tech loss haunt them.
"I addressed that fact Sunday in a team meeting," the Duke coach said. "We have a good football team. The latter part of the second quarter and the second half of that game doesn't change that. They know I don't lie to them, If I think we have a difficult matchup somewhere, I'm going to tell them.
"But position-by-position, we've got a good football team. If you are going to compete to be a winning football team, you don't change when you get your tail whipped. It means you don't change when you whip somebody's tail."
ANOTHER RECEIVING STAR
Before the season, when Duke senior Conner Vernon was asked about facing a lot of double-teams as the Blue Devils' only experienced receiver, he laughed and said opponents would not be weighting their defenses in his direction once they got a look at Jamison Crowder.
Crowder, a 5-9, 175-pound sophomore, is making Vernon out to be prophet. The undersized wideout has been one of the ACC's top receivers with 46 catches for 588 yards and four touchdowns so far this season.
Crowder already has three touchdown catches of 50-plus yards this season, matching the second-best season total in Duke history (one short of Eron Riley's record of four). He ranks 13th nationally in receptions and 21st in receiving yards.
The young wide receiver had his third 100-plus yard receiving game in his seven starts when he caught eight passes for 127 yards against Virginia Tech. One of those catches was a 62-yard touchdown strike from Sean Renfree in the first quarter.
Crowder just missed another TD catch in the fourth quarter, when he pulled down a Renfree pass in the back of the end zone. But the ref on the play ruled that Crowder's toe had touched the backline - a call that was confirmed by replay.
"I was out," Crowder admitted. "My foot did touch the line. Once I caught it, I tapped my toe and looked down and noticed that I was out. My momentum carried me down and when I got us I saw the ref signaling no catch. In my head, I said, 'Yeah, that was good call.'"