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At the end of three quarters Saturday afternoon in Chapel Hill, Duke had 317 yards of total offense. North Carolina had 272.
And the Tar Heels led 24-7.
You wouldn’t know it to look at the final score of North Carolina’s 38-7 win over Duke Saturday afternoon but there were times when it looked like Duke might have a chance to win, times when Duke actually dominated play.
But if you’re even remotely conversant with football cliches, you know that it’s a 60-minute game. You know that big plays decide games. And you know that you cannot squander scoring opportunities on the road as an underdog.
Duke came up on the short end of all those cliches against the Tar Heels.
The end result was Duke’s third straight loss to their arch rivals.
Duke had so many chances early.
UNC got the ball first and reached Duke territory. But Sam Howell was sacked on third down and Carolina punted to the Duke 14.
Mataeo Durant scampered for 37 yards on Duke’s first play from scrimmage. Duke converted a 4th and 1 and reached the Carolina 38. But a sack and a false start led to a punt.
It was the first of six fruitless Duke trips into Carolina territory.
A harbinger of things to come.
Duke drove to the Carolina 37 on its second possession but another false start led to a 15-yard Porter Wilson punt.
What went wrong?
“We carried the fight to them to start the game,” David Cutcliffe said, before moving on to a familiar litany of mistakes that kept Duke from turning that fight into points; inconsistency, assignment lapses, penalties, turnovers.
“We had bad first-down production. Then we couldn’t execute second and 10. You can’t do that. We stopped ourselves.”
No, you can’t do that, not against an offense as explosive as North Carolina’s.
Howell hit running back Ty Chandler down the right sideline for 75 yards and Carolina’s first score, right at the end of the opening period.
The game started getting away from Duke on the next possession. With the ball at the Carolina 40, Gunnar Holmberg was hit as he attempted to throw. The play was ruled a fumble, one recovered by Trey Morrison and returned 63 yards for a touchdown.
The Tar Heels added a touchdown and a field goal to take a 24-0 lead into the locker room.
Duke’s frustrations can be summed up by the final seconds of the first half. A 22-yard punt return by Scott Boylan and a late hit gave Duke the ball at the Carolina 34, with 24 seconds left.
That’s about a 51-yard field goal. Pick up five or so yards, maybe more and it’s a makeable field goal for Charlie Ham, something to build on going into halftime.
Instead Duke lost four yards in three plays and Ham barely reached the end zone on a 56-yard attempt.
Duke got on the board early in the second half, first play, in fact. Holmberg hit Jalon Calhoun down the field, Calhoun juked a couple of defenders and hit the end zone.
Get some stops, get a score or two and maybe Duke had a chance.
And Duke got the stops. Trailing 24-7 Duke forced three straight North Carolina punts.
But the points didn’t come.
First Holmberg threw an interception. The Duke defense responded with back-to-back sacks. Duke moved the ball to the Carolina 30. On 4th and 2 running-quarterback Jordan Moore came in and-to no one’s surprise—ran the ball.
He needed six feet. He got five.
Duke again reached Carolina territory, the 46 to be exact. But a false start on 4th and 2 led to a punt.
Cutcliffe cited poor pass protection. Not only was Holmberg sacked four times but Carolina’s pressure virtually eliminated Duke’s down-field passing game, according to Cutcliffe.
He also mentioned the inability of Duke’s receivers to get consistent separation down field.
Mataeo Durant—he rushed for 114 yards- credited Carolina for “making really good adjustments,” and having “athletes make plays when they had to.”
But he also cited consistency issues.
As did defensive tackle DeWayne Carter. Carter had 1.5 of Duke’s five sacks and keyed a run defense that stifled Carolina’s run game for much of the game.
“We felt a challenge to stop the run,” he said.
But Carolina kept hitting big plays and added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter. As much as Duke harassed Howell, he still threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns, the scoring strikes from 75, 14 and 63 yards.
The loss ends Duke’s three-game winning streak and drops Duke to 3-2 overall, 0-1 in the ACC.
That word keeps cropping up. “Consistency.” And not in a good way.
Duke hosts Georgia Tech next week, Duke’s sixth game of the year, the midpoint of a season that could go in several directions. And Tech is coming off a blow-out loss of its own.
In other words, time enough for some consistency.
In a good way.
- Five observations from Duke football’s first half against North Carolina
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- Photos: North Carolina vs. Duke in ACC college football action
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- UNC keeps Victory Bell with 38-7 win over Duke