While their postseason destination isn't known quite yet (though it appears it may be the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte), the fact that the Tar Heels are going to a bowl at all might be the most surprising fact of the 2004 ACC season.
"We've got to keep working, but we've made a lot of progress over the season, and that is the result of a staff that believed in each other and believed in the players, and vice versa,' head coach John Bunting said following the game, "The players believe in what we are doing."
It has to be said that Duke's offense isn't the most potent in the nation. After Saturday's game, the Duke offense ranked 117th out of 118 Division I-A teams in the nation. However, it was a solid defensive performance, even given the level of competition.
Nowhere is the players’ belief in "what we are doing" more evident than on defense. Of course, continuity helps as well. For a team that had started different lineups every week on defense dating back to the Miami of Ohio game in 2002, the Tar Heels started the same lineup for its fourth consecutive game Saturday. And they lose only two of those starters next season, Gerald Sensabaugh and Jonas Seawright.
For the third consecutive game, the they achieved a new mark for the fewest number of yards allowed on defense. From the high water mark against Utah, a UNC all-time record of 669 yards allowed, the Tar Heels only allowed their opponents no more than 313 yards of offense in the last three games.
Both upperclassmen and some the Tar Heels’ youngest players starred for the defense against Duke. Tommy Richardson (seven tackles), who moved to linebacker from safety during spring practice, has steadily improved over the course of the season. Tommy Davis has improved at defensive end as well, and recorded a sack against the Blue Devils.
But several of the youngest Tar Heels made their mark as well on Saturday. Kareen Taylor's interception and 64-yard return for a touchdown was a dagger to the heart of any Blue Devil comeback attempt. Taylor has quietly emerged as the second-leading tackler for the Tar Heels this season. Hilee Taylor, a true freshman who has missed several games during UNC's stretch run, got into the act with two-and-a-half sacks against the Blue Devils.
It is not clear exactly what happened after the Utah game, but something clearly did. The UNC defense that finished the season was an entirely different defense than the one that began it.
The offense has also undergone a bit of a transformation since the Utah game, but that transformation is easier to identify and explain.
Chad Scott finished the season with 747 yards, the most since Jonathan Linton ran for over 1,000 yards in 1997. But 511 of Scott's yards and seven rushing touchdowns have come since the Utah game. He turned in his third 100-yard plus game on Saturday, rushing for 144 yards.
With Ronnie McGill out of action from the Utah game until the Wake Forest game, and Jacque Lewis nicked up as well, Chad Scott was healthy (a rarity in his Tar Heel career) and ready to step up. He did, in a big way. His emergence as one of the most effective rushers in the ACC is hard to explain, though playing behind an offensive line that became more and more confident as the season progressed had to help.
Though Darian Durant's heroics have often been the storyline of Carolina's offense, in all of UNC's wins this year they have rushed for over 200 yards, and in their losses they averaged less than 100 yards rushing. Scott has carried the load since the Utah game, often in spectacular fashion.
Jesse Holley has also emerged as a big-play receiver over the last four games of the year, and came up big again Saturday, with four catches for 67 yards. Mike Mason had one of his better games this season, also with four catches for 57 yards.
Durant completed 14 passes on 19 attempts, for a modest 174 yards and only one touchdown - and no interceptions.
Although Durant's stat line wouldn't cause any national sensation, and isn't the most impressive he has produced as a Tar Heel in terms of completions or yards, you have to wonder how his record as a starter might have changed with similar production from the running game and defense.
He might not have set as many records as he holds at UNC - and there are 48 of them - but undoubtedly he would have enjoyed a lot more victories.
Special Teams and Turnovers
The mystery about the special teams is the perceived need for "squib" kicks on kickoffs. It seems the Tar Heels do much better when they just kick the ball away. Too often "squib" kicks sail out of bounds, or fall too short.
The two blocked kicks -- one field goal and one extra point -- also bear watching. Either the Blue Devils gave incredible individual performances, or spotted some deficiency in the Carolina formations.
The interception by Taylor, and his subsequent 64-yard romp into the end zone, was one of the more welcome sights of the 2004 season. The Tar Heels still finished with a negative turnover margin, but not nearly the double-digit deficiency of the past two seasons.
The Tar Heels await selection by a bowl game committee. That selection should come this week, the punctuation mark to an improbable season. Few fans expected a 6-5 season, or a 5-3 mark in the new and improved ACC. Few expected a win over NCSU, seen as a top tier ACC team at the beginning of the year. None expected a win over Miami, the biggest upset in UNC football history.
More improbable still is that instead of preparing for the unemployment line, Bunting awaits a two-year contract extension to be approved by the Board of Trustees.
Many challenges still await this team, and Bunting and his staff. Winning a bowl game would be huge, and it remains to be seen whether the Tar Heels’ turnaround over the final four games of the season and Bunting's contract extension will be enough to turn the heads of a few still-undecided high-profile recruits.
Despite those challenges, the Tar Heels and their fans should take time to enjoy their remarkable accomplishment this season as they prepare for their bowl game.