Can UNC's rushing attack challenge Duke's top-ranked defense?

Can UNC's rushing attack challenge Duke's top-ranked defense?

Last week, in its 53-23 win at Old Dominion, the North Carolina football team saw three players rush for two touchdowns apiece: quarterback Chazz Surratt and running backs Jordon Brown and Michael Carter.

Through three games, Duke has allowed two rushing touchdowns total.

That's the challenge the Tar Heels (1-2) face when they host the Blue Devils (3-0) and their top-ranked rushing defense in Kenan Stadium at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday.

"We invite that. We want to be the best," Carter said. "So we have to beat the best to be the best."

So far, Duke's defense has brought out the worst in its opponents. Before its 34-20 loss to the Blue Devils this past weekend, Baylor had 391 rushing yards through its first two games. On Saturday, the Bears gained 57 yards on 27 carries.

It was even worse a week earlier for Northwestern, a team that amassed 459 yards in its other two games. But against Duke? The Wildcats turned 21 rushes for 22 yards in a 41-17 loss.

That's what the Blue Devils' rush defense, ranked No. 1 in the nation, has done to teams this season. Opponents are averaging 47.7 rushing yards on 1.8 yards per carry, and all three teams Duke has faced saw their worst rushing performance of the season in Durham.

"I don't think they've given up 65 yards in a game rushing this year ..." North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. "They're getting after it pretty good."

For what it's worth, UNC saw its best rushing performance this past weekend, gashing Old Dominion for 252 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Brown — the team's leading rusher through three games — crossed the 100-yard mark for the first time in his career with 125 yards on 17 carries, and Carter added 67 yards on 13 touches of his own. Carter extended his touchdown streak to three games, while Brown scored for the first time all season.

"I feel like I was hitting the hole with more velocity and just running harder than I have," Brown said.

The Tar Heels' rushing attack hasn't impressed by volume, but it's been the offense's most consistent path to the scoreboard this season. Seventy teams have more rushing yards per game than UNC (162.7), but only seven have more rushing touchdowns (10). The six rushing touchdowns last week are tied for the most by a North Carolina team since Fedora took over in 2012.

Sure, it took 50 carries to get there — more than Duke's allowed in the past two weeks combined — but it was a far cry from a week earlier, when the Tar Heels rushed for 17 yards on 23 carries. Those numbers in the Louisville loss were largely skewed by Surratt's second-quarter sack that cost UNC 21 yards, just as the Blue Devils' stats against the rush are aided by the defense's 11 sacks. Take those away, and Duke's opponents are averaging 74.3 yards on 3.3 yards per carry.

But sacks matter, and the Tar Heels will be hard-pressed to thwart Duke's aggressive defense this Saturday. Fedora attributed the Blue Devils' success to the extra pressure and movement along their defensive line. And that style couldn't come at a worse time for a reeling North Carolina offensive line.

Entering the Old Dominion game, the Tar Heels were without offensive linemen Bentley Spain, Cam Dillard and Tommy Hatton. Guard Khaliel Rodgers briefly went down to send Nick Polino, who was already battling an injury, into action. And offensive tackle William Sweet left the game and didn't return.

That's to say nothing of the injury to senior receiver Thomas Jackson, who left Tuesday's practice in street clothes and looks to have a long recovery ahead.

"I don't know anymore," offensive coordinator Chris Kapilovic said. "I'm at a loss of words for some of the things that's happened this year. I've never really experienced it ...

"We're trying to find ways to just find the next guy and get him to produce, but there's no words for that."

What's left is a jigsaw puzzle of offensive lineman hoping to deter the best run defense, by the numbers, in the nation. But North Carolina has two young backs who look to be hitting their stride, with a quarterback who can make things happen on the ground, too.

And if the Tar Heels are to get the best from their rushing attack — much like they did last week — they'l have to beat the best to do it.