Instead, it took some fourth quarter heroics on Saturday, offensively and defensively, for North Carolina (5-5, 4-3) to prevail over Duke (1-10, 0-8), 24-21.
“That’s what I’d probably call your typical Duke-North Carolina game,” head coach John Bunting said. “I’ve had five of them now and a couple of them have come down to the wire. I’m not surprised by that.”
Why shouldn’t everyone in the Tar Heel nation be surprised by that?
The good news is that the Tar Heel offense put enough points on the scoreboard to win. Aside from two game-saving plays, the bad news is almost everything else.
Where to start? First, the North Carolina wide receivers were considered to be one of the strengths of this team going into this season. Again this Saturday, they weren’t a strength of the offense; they were a weakness.
This was just one game, but it was far too typical of this season in terms of the play of the wide receivers. Excuses are a dime a dozen, but either the wide receivers make plays, or they don’t. Far too often this season it has been the latter rather than the former. Dropped passes, unfinished routes, lack of concentration -- all of these shortcomings have personified the Tar Heel receivers this season.
Junior running back Ronnie McGill was a bright spot on the offense, but his performance ought not to be too surprising. McGill turned in the second-best performance of his career, rushing 28 times for 146 yards. As solid as was his performance, it should be noted that Duke is dead last in the ACC in rushing defense, and 110th nationally out of 117 Division 1-A teams. UNC rushed for 163 net yards on Saturday, about 40 yards less than Duke surrenders on average.
McGill did turn in “Game-Saving Play, Part I.” On fourth-and-inches, with the Blue Devils leading 21-17, McGill squirmed for a first-down that made the win possible. That UNC needed a fourth-and-inches run for first down late in the game versus Duke is surprising.
Matt Baker played another gritty game at quarterback, which should become his legacy at North Carolina. His only blemish on Saturday came when he fumbled in the first quarter inside the 10-yard line, leading to Duke’s second touchdown. Though he completed less than 50 percent of his passes, much of that blame rests on the shoulders of his receivers.
Baker also turned in, “Game-Saving Play, Part II.” On North Carolina’s final scoring drive they faced a third-and-ten at their 30-yard line. A field goal would avail them nothing; they need a touchdown or face the ignominy of a home loss to Duke. Baker’s 19-yard run on third down set up the game-winning touchdown.
Baker has been the most consistent performer of the entire Tar Heel offense.
Going into this season, Baker’s play was the biggest question mark for the offense. Though there is one game left to play this season, surprisingly he has been the most consistent performer of the entire Tar Heel offense.
While the stat sheet provides the false impression that UNC dominated offensively – 26 first downs, 401 net offensive yards – this has been an offense that has underachieved all season, and Saturday was no exception.
The North Carolina defense again turned in a performance that will go underappreciated because of the foibles of the offense. The defense allowed only 11 Duke first downs, and only 244 net yards. Aside from a reverse run by Duke in the fourth quarter, the defense -- playing undermanned -- stymied the Duke offense all day.
The backbone demonstrated by the defense was on full display during a fourth quarter drive by Duke that might have put UNC away for good. The Blue Devils had first-and-goal from the four-yard line at the beginning of the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, Durrell Mapp and Tommy Davis collaborated on a stop that gave the Tar Heels possession of the ball, and likely deprived Duke of a win.
After the Tar Heels had gone up 24-21, the ensuing kickoff went out-of-bounds and the Blue Devils had possession at the North Carolina 35 -- needing only a field goal to walk out of Kenan Stadium with the win. On Duke’s second play from scrimmage, senior Tommy Richardson stepped in front of a Duke receiver for an interception that secured the UNC victory.
While the Blue Devil offense isn’t the most prolific in the nation -- indeed, it is one of the worst offenses in Division I-A -- the Tar Heel defensive line was decimated. Defensive ends Brian Rackley and Hilee Taylor were out for the game with injuries. Defensive end Kentwan Balmer was ejected early in the game for a personal foul (more about that later). Defensive tackle Shelton Bynum was gimpy and played sparingly. And even Tommy Davis went out for a brief period of time with an injury.
Again, though it will go underappreciated, the play of the defensive line was remarkable in light of the injuries it sustained. While the heroics of McGill and Baker put the points on the scoreboard, their efforts would have not been enough without the blue-collar play of the defense.
This portion of “Between the Lines” is usually dedicated to the special teams. This week, the “high jinks” of the game which lead to eight personal foul calls deserves its own special place.
The fact that North Carolina and Duke dislike each other in sports should surprise no one. The universities are eight miles apart and are long-time ACC rivals. In football, however, Duke has no business considering itself a rival of North Carolina -- and more importantly, neither does North Carolina.
North Carolina has now won 15 of the last 16 meetings between the two schools. Many of those North Carolina wins have been lopsided victories. Even in the season that sent former head coach Carl Torbush packing, the Tar Heels thumped the Blue Devils 59-21 in a game that really wasn’t even that close.
Duke has no business considering itself a rival of North Carolina.
Clearly there is a tradition between the two schools that make hotly contested basketball games the norm instead of the exception -- not so in football. In football, the Duke game should reliably be the game in which the Tar Heels cruise to a victory that allows even the greenest UNC walk-on to get meaningful snaps.
“I was really disappointed in losing our poise and not being disciplined...there is no reason for that,” Bunting said. That’s true, and it is surprising that the Tar Heels weren’t better prepared to deal with the intensity of the Blue Devils. That the Blue Devils might choose to be overly belligerent isn’t surprising; the fact that the Tar Heels allowed themselves to get caught up in their belligerence is. Balmer’s ejection depleted an already thin defensive line, and “payback” personal fouls were the order of the day.
Responding in kind to the type of aggression displayed by the Blue Devils is not how North Carolina needs to demonstrate their dominance over Duke. That dominance should be displayed on the scoreboard.
The Tar Heels face the Virginia Tech Hokies next Saturday with a winning season and a bowl possibility on the line. The Hokies are fresh off an exhilarating blowout win over their arch-rival, Virginia, and likely view the Tar Heels as their next easy victim.
While it might be easy to write off the Heels’ chances against Virginia Tech, upsets in the ACC happen -- ask the Miami Hurricanes who lost Saturday to Georgia Tech in Miami – but it’ll take UNC’s best performance of the season to make it possible.