Back in the bad old days of Duke football, the Blue Devils had a tendency to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
And that possibility certainly existed for much of a steamy September afternoon in Kenan Stadium. A hungry home team took advantage of some familiar Duke problems-inefficient red-zone offense, a defense that allowed too many big plays, and a missed field goal among them—to take a 17-13 lead into the fourth quarter.
But these aren’t the bad old days of Duke football. They may, in fact, be the good, new days. Duke dominated an admittedly short-handed Tar Heels team down the stretch for a 27-17 victory.
It was a lot closer than the score indicated. Duke didn’t sew up the victory until the Tar Heels lost it on downs at the Duke eight, with 24 seconds left, eliminating the possibility of an onside kick and fluke Hail Mary.
Trust me, if you’ve watched Duke football as long as I have, you know what I’m talking about.
Daniel Jones gave Duke the lead at the end of a dramatic eight-play, 74 yard touchdown drive.
But it was the defense that deserves the lion’s share of the credit, especially for a sequence that spanned the third and fourth quarters. Three times the Tar Heels got the ball up 17-13. Three times Duke got it back with the score still 17-13, four plays and a punt, three plays and a punt, four plays and a punt.
“Just being hungry,” tackle Mike Ramsay said, “we just really had to dig down deep and get it done. Bend but don’t break. When it counted most, we just had to get the job done on defense.”
Carolina drew first blood. Duke’s initial drive looked promising until a sack and false start turned a 2nd-and 1 into a 3rd and 9 and led to a punt.
Carolina burned Duke with a flea-flicker, 47 yards from Chazz Surrat to Austin Proehl. Duke dug in and forced a 34-yard field goal from Freeman Jones.
The Tar Heels led for 59 seconds, the time it took Duke to go 75 yards in three plays, the first two runs by Brittain Brown of nine and 38 yards and the final a 28-yard pass from Jones to tight end Davis Koppenhaver.
Duke spent the rest of the first half threatening to put away the home team but never quite doing it. A 66-yard drive led to an Austin Parker field goal and it was 10-3.
Duke drove from midfield to the Carolina six late in the half but came up empty. Koppenhaver dropped a pass that might have led to a score and then Parker hit a one-iron that barely got off the ground.
Only 22 seconds remained in the half and the Tar Heels had a whopping minus two yards in total offense in the second quarter.
So, naturally, Surrat hit Anthony Ratliff for 35 and 45 yards and the teams went into the locker room tied at 10.
“A huge loss of focus,” Ramsay said. “We have to stay locked in. That was a dagger. That’s awful. As a defense, you just can’t let happen. That could have cost us the game.”
Center Austin Davis said Duke was calm at halftime, while David Cutcliffe said the focus was on the things that Duke did well in the first half and doing them better in the second half.
Cutcliffe also reminded his team that this was ACC football and such things are to be expected.
Cutcliffe also said he told his defense they hadn’t been on the field long enough to be tired; Carolina ran only 26 plays in the first half, three of them accounting for 127 of their 156 first-half yards.
Long, time-consuming, second-half drives helped put away Northwestern and Baylor earlier this month and Duke tried to rinse and repeat against Carolina. Duke kept the ball for the first eight minutes of the third quarter, 19 plays but had to settle for a Parker field goal, 24 yards out.
Give Parker credit. Some place-kickers unravel after a bad miss. But for the second straight week, Parker has followed a miss with a big make.
Again, the big-play bugaboo bit Duke in the derriere. Surrat avoided a sack, scrambling 56 yards for the score.
It stayed that way through a series of punts, until Duke got it back at their 26, with 9:22 left.
Perhaps not do-or-die. But in the neighborhood.
Cutcliffe said “Carolina had us in a box. We had not been able to finish drives. They had explosives, we didn’t. We decided to take a shot.”
Jones threw to Rahming, who fought off two defenders for the jump ball, 45 yards, to the UNC 29 yard line.
It was still a tough slog from there. Three plays netted five yards. Duke passed up the 41-yard field goal, Jones hit Johnathan Lloyd for 12 yards to the 12.
“We set up a little rub there and Johnathan did a great job getting away from his guy. A lot goes into that play.”
Shaun Wilson pounded it in a few plays later and Duke led 20-17, with 6:04 left, plenty of time for a comeback.
Duke shut the door. Under pressure, Surrat tried to force it. Bryon Fields picked it off and weaved his way into the end zone.
Cutcliffe called this play “team defense. We came with pressure up front and came up with legal and timely blocks to help Bryon.”
It was the game’s only turnover and the fourth pick-six of Fields’ career, a Duke record.
The Tar Heels converted a pair of fourth downs before losing the ball on downs in the final seconds.
“Third-down and fourth-down defense and offense proved to be a big part of the day and without that we probably wouldn’t have won,” Cutcliffe said. It was a slug-fest of a football game.”
“The fourth-quarter comeback, down the stretch win is huge for us,” Jones added. “Being able to handle that is something to build off of.”
Mike Ramsay had 2.5 tackles for loss, disrupted the Carolina running game and helped make Chazz Surrat’s life miserable. Cutcliffe praised Ramsay’s “consistency and focus,” adding “he’s a man on a mission. He has good tangibles but his intangibles are special.”
Too early to know if Ben Humphreys’ injury is serious.
The win was the 100th of Cutcliffe’s career. Fifty-six of those have come at Duke. Duke notched the 500th win in school history.
Safety Jeremy McDuffie led Duke with a career-high 10 tackles.
Brittain Brown led Duke with 90 rushing yards, while T.J. Rahming led with six receptions, for 75 yards. Daniel Jones was 18-34, for 202 yards.
Duke did not turn it over and was called for only two penalties, for 12 yards. Cutcliffe called this “critical.”
- UNC Football: Victory Bell tolls doom for Tar Heels
- Wilson, Fields help Duke beat rival UNC, 27-17
- UNC 17, Duke 27: Tar Heels squander another fourth quarter lead
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