Duke will venture into Kenan Stadium on Saturday for the first time since Marquise Williams and company dropped 66 points on the Blue Devils in 2015. The next year, after a controversial redecoration of the Victory Bell, UNC walked into Wallace Wade Stadium flat, losing to a not-very-good-couch-sitting-in-December Duke team. Now, as the Blue Devils are favored to win in Kenan for the first time this millennium, the Tar Heels are focused on bringing the historic Victory Bell trophy home.
“That’s all we’ve been talking about,” sophomore linebacker Johnathan Smith, who is priming himself to take over for an injured Andre Smith, said.
Junior linebacker Cole Holcomb felt similarly. “[We've] got to get it back,” he said. “It doesn’t feel right not having it in Chapel Hill.”
After Wednesday’s practice, the prevalent mindset among the team seemed to center around winning the game for the team’s seniors. “They don’t get another shot at Duke,” Holcomb said. “For guys like Donnie (Miles), M.J. (Stewart), Cayson (Collins), Tyler Powell – all the seniors – we want to bring the Bell back to Chapel Hill for them.”
Both Holcomb and Smith noted the importance of the rivalry to the players. “I’ve got a couple of friends [playing for Duke], but we’re not friends this week,” Holcomb said with a slight smile. “They’re our rival. It’s Duke. It’s Duke.”
“The atmosphere will be different,” Smith said. “I think there will be a lot more people out here, the crowd will be louder, and it’s just going to up our play.” While the sophomore linebacker is focused on the rivalry, he made sure to emphasize the importance of playing smart football, even when things get heated to avoid costly penalties.
“I think it’ll be a lot more aggressive, a lot more players on edge, but we've just got to keep our composure,” Smith said. “Every game is a big game for us because, at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to go 1-0 each week.”
“We only get one shot at Duke every year,” Smith continued, “so the word is, go out, ball out and get the Bell back.”