(According to a Continental Tire Bowl official in attendance, that decision could come early next week, or later, depending on how things shake out. Regardless, the Heels can for all intents and purposes, expect five more weeks of practice and a holiday on the road.)
"I told the guys this spring, I told them I love my family more than anything but I do NOT want to be with them this Christmas," senior center Jason Brown said following the win. "I want to be with you guys. I told them that. I want to be with every single one of you guys off some where having some fun and doing what we do best. It's going to be a beautiful experience and I'm sure where ever we go, we are going to have a ball."
Senior Chad Scott and the Tar Heel offensive line served notice early on that the Heels intended to pound the Devils into submission. Scott alone took four carries to cover the 56 yards to pay dirt as Carolina jumped to a 7-0 lead just 1:43 into the contest.
"Our goal was to run the ball straight down their mouths," Brown said of the first series. "We knew we had two fresh running backs with Ronnie McGill and Chad Scott, and that's what we were going to do. We were going to pound the ball at them all game long. It helped us out then and later."
Duke did not roll over however and after Matt Brooks' 51 yard field goal the Carolina lead stood at 7-3. On the ensuing series, Tar Heel quarterback Darian Durant sprained his throwing shoulder and headed to the locker room for treatment. Matt Baker came on and drove the Heels into Connor Barth field goal range late in the opening quarter. Then Duke's Casey Camero blocked his third kick of the season and Kenneth Stanford's 70 yard return put the Devils up 10-7.
With Durant out, the many Tar Heel fans in attendance feared the worst. But Durant did not come this far to watch his career end on the bench.
When asked if there was any doubt whether he'd return to the game, Durant simply said, "Not at all."
"It's very important (that Durant returned to the game). Darian is the leader of leaders on our team," Brown said about the situation, "Everybody looks at Darian Durant for answers, for guidance, and for shelter. He's like Mother Goose when we are out there. When you have such a prestigious player out there, knowing he's behind you and he has so much game knowledge and knowing he's going to make the best decision in whatever situation is possible, we know we have a great chance of winning."
Sophomore receiver Jesse Holley also expected nothing less from the senior warrior. "That's just Darian. He's a tough nose kind of guy," Holley said of his quarterback. "I knew if he was able to walk, whatever, he wasn't going to leave the game. This was his last regular season game so I knew he was going to go out there to try to finish it. That just gives us more confidence. If he can go out there with a shoulder injury, tough it out and play, we all can."
Holley and the Heels did just that and with Durant back in action, Carolina powered to a 20-10 with 2:57 left in the half. Duke then managed it's only extended drive of the day going 65 yards in nine plays to cut the light blue lead to 20-17 at the break. Chad Scott continued his string of impressive halves managing 114 yards on just 13 carries and two touchdowns.
"I trust the linemen and their blocks," Scott said of his success, "They trust me to make the right reads. The set the blocks up for me, so I have an easy job, and we were successful."
After thoroughly dominating the first half and leading by a slim three points, the Tar Heels refused to doubt the outcome. When asked about the slim margin, senior safety Gerald Sensabaugh thought back to everything this team had endured since August. "That's just that adversity. 400 yards [actually 306] and only a three point lead – that's just how the ball flies sometimes. They came to play and capitalized on our mistakes."
"We've always been a great second half team," Holley said when asked about the 20-17 halftime lead. "We knew we had another half, rest up and go out there and put them away in the second half."
Put the Devils away the Heels did. For the final 30 minutes of the 2004 regular season, the Heels methodically dissected the Duke defense and manhandled the Devil offense.
After the teams traded punts to open the second half, Carolina's next three offensive possessions produced a touchdown and two field goals while the already anemic Duke offense could do little to stem the tide.
"I was misquoted last week when I said I hate close games," Brown commented later, "I love competition, but the thing is, you have to understand, it feels so much better after you just stick that dagger in them and knowing we've secured that victory."
Saturday's dagger came when Kareen Taylor waltzed into the Duke endzone with just 2:06 left. Even as Taylor finished off the 64 yard interception return of a Mike Schneider pass, the Carolina bench eased into position for the final assault on the then Devil blue painted Bell.
Sensing their possession of the Victory Bell rapidly coming to an end, the several Blue Devil cheerleaders started the long walk around the track and toward the Carolina side of the field, a sight not unnoticed by the mass of fans dressed in light blue at the ends of Wade Stadium's horseshoe.
Duke would extended the inevitable by using timeouts and a short passing game to move the ball deep into Carolina territory, but the clock expired and the takeover of the Bell began with a rush of Tar Heels retrieving the bell from those Duke cheerleaders and returning it to the Carolina sideline. It did not take long for the Victory Bell to lose its darker shade of blue.
"James Spurling…he's one of our number one fans and he came out here with a bag full of Carolina blue spray paint," said a laughing Brown later. "Before I even got down to the bell, it was already blue! I took my can and got me a couple sprays in just so I could say I got my two cents in."
"We had to do it," Scott, who finished with 144 yards on 26 carries, said when asked about the painting, "Last year, they ran over there and took it away. We had to get the bell and paint it. There's been a lot of trash talk in the paper. Coach has said all week that the game wasn't going to be won in the paper, but we got the bell. Those guys were pretty excited to get that bell back. I was just participating. I jumped on the bandwagon (laughter)."
Based on the numbers, it was the Tar Heel defense's finest hour of the season as the Blue Devils could manage just 234 total yards. 116 of those yards came in Duke's last possession of each half. Carolina rolled up 285 yards rushing on 48 attempts while Durant closed his final regular season in Chapel Hill with 174 yards and one touchdown on 14 of 19 passing despite the painful sprained shoulder.
Immediately following the win, Athletic Director Dick Baddour and Chancellor James Moeser met with the team and informed them that Coach John Bunting would likely receive a two year extension on his contract. The news was met with applause and cheering easily heard from outside the Tar Heel locker room. According to Baddour, the team responded with "'I'm a Tar Heel born and I'm a Tar Heel bred and when I die I'm a Tar Heel dead.' That's what they yelled out. They were ecstatic about it."
Baddour explained the decision and the timing of the announcement later. "We've been discussing it for some time. We've had the more intense discussions this week. We did talk with the Board about it. We had made the decision," Baddour said, "It's really important that everybody involved with the program have a strong sense of stability in the program. The young men, the staff, the people we are recruiting, the fans…we need to get out of this transition. We need to get into stability of this program and we are hoping it will be the strongest message we can send out."
"Now it's time for all Carolina fans to come together. It's time for ALL Carolina fans to come together in support of this program and make it as good as it can be," Baddour continued, "This program is in great hands. We've got a lot of confidence in John and we want to win the ACC Championship and we know we can do it under his leadership, with these student athletes and this coaching staff."
Jason Brown summed up the reaction and feelings of the Tar Heel players simply and directly. "You had to have heard it. It was an uproar with everybody," Brown said of Bunting's good news. "We owe it to that man. He bleeds Carolina blue and we have no bigger fan than Coach Bunting and we truly owe him. We love him.
So now the Heels await word on the 12th and final game of the season. Whether it's Charlotte or Boise or Las Vegas or some other far off place, expect plenty of Tar Heel fans in attendance, a fact Jesse Holley and his Carolina teammates love to see.
"We had more fans than they had! Our fans have been great all year long," Holley said of the Tar Heel fans, "They've come out to every home game. They've should tremendous support all over. Those guys get two thumbs up, a pat on the back, kiss on the cheek, everything. Those guys have been great, just great. They've been in the games for four quarters. They have really wanted to be that twelfth man for us. I want to say thank you to all the fans of the Tar Heels."