If you like college-football rivalries, massive traffic jams and lots of people wearing different shades of blue, then Wallace Wade Stadium was a good place to be Thursday night.
If you like Duke football, then it was a great place to be.
A beleaguered Duke team overcame another key injury, an early 14-0 deficit and a nationally-ranked North Carolina football team for a pulsating 28-27 win in their 2016 home finale.
The win ended a three-game losing streak this season and a two-game losing streak to the Tar Heels.
The injury du jour was to standout corner Breon Borders. David Cutcliffe described it as a soft tissue leg injury and said Borders simply couldn’t put any weight on it today.
True freshman Mark Gilbert got the starting nod, a first career start against a quarterback widely projected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft.
A baptism under fire and Gilbert took some early hits.
“I felt like every play, they wanted to go after me. Knowing that Breon was out and me being a true freshman, I knew they were going to attack me.”
David Cutcliffe credited Gilbert for continuing to fight through early adversity. “He never panicked.”
The Tar Heels marched 70 yards in eight plays the first time they had the ball and 96 yards in 10 plays the second time, Mitch Trubisky finishing both drives with touchdown passes.
It was 14-0 after 11 minutes, with the visitors boasting a 166-to-43 edge in total yardage after each team’s first two possessions.
The less faithful probably started channel surfing around this time.
Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris says Duke had a simple way to stop the bleeding.
“We just settled down. We were a little jittery coming out, a big rivalry game and we came out a little nervous and it showed.”
“We didn’t do great in the first half, giving up two touchdowns,” senior tackle A.J. Wolf added, “but the way we responded was pretty amazing.”
No big schematic changes, just winning individual battles.
Some of those battles came when Duke started pressuring Trubisky, who Duke barely bothered early. He was only sacked once but was increasingly harried into throwing off his back foot, with a hand in his face, or scrambling for his life.
“We tried to take away the run game and make him make every throw,” Giles-Harris said. “Our D-line and blitzers got after him. We tried to get into his head. He started throwing off his back foot and getting rattled.”
Duke started moving the ball, controlling the clock and converting third downs. The Blue Devils punched it in the end zone three times in the second quarter, all on runs, Daniel Jones, Shaun Wilson and Jones again. But all of the drives included big passes to a variety of receivers.
And Duke kept UNC’s potent offense on the sidelines.
““We felt like we could make first downs,” Cutcliffe said. “We thought if we got the right down and distance, we could convert third downs. We didn’t have a lot of third-and-longs. We felt like we needed to stay on the field.”
Duke tied it at 14, UNC put together their final TD drive, and then Duke tied it a final time at 21, four minutes before intermission.
Duke may have won the game with three huge second-half defensive sequences in Duke territory. UNC began the second half by moving to the Duke 31 in five plays. But Deondre Singleton—another senior playing his final home game—picked off a deflected pass.
North Carolina got the ball back and moved to the Duke 21. But Dominic McDonald—yes, another one of those seniors—dropped Austin Proehl for a 12-yard loss on a swing pass.
Nick Weiler nailed a field goal and Duke trailed again, 24-21.
But not for long. Jones hit T.J Rahming for 35 yards—Rahming did much of the work with a spectacular diving catch—on third-and-eight and then scrambled for 22 yards. Jones connected with third-string tight end Davis Koppenhaver for the score and Duke had its first lead, 28-24, with about two minutes left in the third quarter.
Will Kline kicked a line drive on the ensuing kickoff, T.J. Logan broke a tackle or two early on and broke into the clear.
Only Kline to beat. And Logan couldn’t beat him. Kline didn’t actually tackle Logan; Brandon Feamster got the credit for that. But he slowed down Logan and forced him inside, where Feamster put him away.
Still, Carolina took over at the Duke 25 after the 75-yard return. Three plays later Weiler was kicking another field goal instead of another extra point and Duke held a slender one-point lead.
“T.J. has that big return and we don’t get anything there,” losing coach Larry Fedora lamented. “You can’t do that and win football games.”
Duke spent much of the fourth quarter having productive non-scoring drives. Duke moved from their 19 to the UNC 25 before losing the ball on downs, no points but four valuable minutes burned.
The Tar Heels moved to the Duke 45 but Wolf stopped Trubisky for no gain on third down.
Technically it wasn’t a sack but it forced a punt, which Carolina downed at the one.
Just under nine minutes left and danger dead ahead.
Duke methodically punched it out, the first six plays runs, five by senior Joe Ajeigbe.
Duke converted twice on third down, before Jones was sacked at the UNC 30.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a team do a better job of getting off the goal line,” Cutcliffe said.
The Blue Devils came out for another fourth-down try. But Jones deftly punted down to the UNC six.
Jones said Duke had been working on this in practice but it was the first time he had ever punted in a game.
Still, the Tar Heels had two timeouts, almost two minutes, an NFL-caliber thrower and a top-tier quicker ready to make that game-winning kick.
He’s still waiting. A harassed Trubisky threw his second interception, this one to Alonzo Saxon, Devon Edwards’ replacement at safety.
Trubisky came into the game with only two interceptions on the season and left with four.
Aided by a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, Duke was able to run out the clock.
“I told somebody my legs were shaking,” Cutcliffe said, “but it had nothing to do with the cold. It was from watching our players, the joy, the deserved joy, because I know how hard they’ve worked.”
Duke had a huge edge in time-of-possession, 36:51 to 22.21, running 89 plays to UNC’s 60.
Duke converted 10-of-17 on third down, while holding UNC to 4-for-10.
Guards Zach Harmon and Zach Baker both got dinged up and true freshman Julian Santos played much of the second half.
Shaun Wilson led Duke with 107 rushing yards. Jones passed for 240 and rushed for 94 more.
Rahming had eight catches for 100 yards.
Duke played a turnover-free game.
Cutcliffe says the Victory Bell is located near his office when Duke has it, so he notices it presence or absence. “Back where it belongs.”
Game Ball? Duke president Richard Brodhead.
Borders? “He’s been imaged and the images show he’ll get better but he didn’t get better in time to play tonight.”
Long-term prognosis? Cutcliffe says the program has never been in better shape.
Hard to argue.