And in an end fitting of the past six years, the North Carolina Tar Heels held on to beat the winless Duke Blue Devils 45-44 in front of 24,478 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Outgoing Carolina head coach John Bunting did not have much to say to the media following the win, but his players did the talking for him, making enough big plays across the board to send the six year coach out a winner in his final battle.
“We pulled one out,” senior Jesse Holley said later, “This is the way this game is always. I told you guys earlier in the week – throw away all the records, throw away everything that mattered with these two teams. When these two teams get together, nothing else matters. It’s going to be a hard fought game all the way to the last whistle.”
Even Holley couldn’t imagine how true his pre-game words would be as the Heels, coming off a complete game win against NC State last week, looked to knock the Blue Devils out to cap the 2006 season.
And in a game that symbolized so many in the six year coaching career of John Bunting, the Tar Heel defense was unable to slow the opposing offense. Duke's freshman quarterback, Thaddeus Lewis directed two first quarter scoring drives for the Blue Devils, resulting in 10 points. Heading into today's contest, Duke had scored nine points in the first quarter - total - this season.
Carolina answered with touchdowns as quarterback Joe Dailey continued his improving play hitting Brooks Foster on a 39 yard strike to put the Heels up 7-3 and after Duke's second score, hitting Hakeem Nicks over the middle for an 83 yard touchdown. It was the fifth longest pass play in Carolina history.
“When he called the play,” Nicks said about the long score, “I knew if I could just beat the corner I would house it because there wasn’t a safety over the top. So I gave him a little move to the outside and came inside and all I saw was green grass and I wasn’t getting caught.”
That put Carolina ahead 14-10 as Dailey would end the first quarter hitting seven of nine passes for 152 yards with 107 of those yards going to Nicks.
Despite the inspired play from the Tar Heel offense, the defense could not stop the Blue Devils consistently and making matters worse, Carolina suffered a significant injury just 7:24 minutes into the game with Kyndraus Guy going down with a right knee injury.
Even more troubling for the Heels was running back Ronnie McGill going down after a toughing out seven yards on third and seven pass from Dailey from the Duke 17 yard line. With McGill out, the Heels offense stagnated and Barth converted at 20 yard field goal to put Carolina up 17-10 with 8:33 left in the half.
“I caught a pass and took off around the end,” McGill said of the injury play, “I felt a guy grab me and somebody hit me on the knee and I felt a little pop when I went down. It was killing me and the coaches think I sprained my MCL. I’ll go in tomorrow for an MRI and check and see what happened.”
With McGill out, the Carolina defense did it’s best to stem the Duke tide, but after Kareen Taylor's second interception of the game thwarted Duke's next drive, Joe Dailey fumbled the ball right back, putting Duke in business at the Carolina 32. Four plays later, Lewis hit wide open tight end Nick Stefanow for the touchdown tying the game at 17 with 3:56 left in the half.
With the Heels unable to move the ball, Duke took over again and drove 69 yards in just six plays with 52 yards coming on a Lewis pass to Eron Riley to the Carolina six. After an incompletion, the Tar Heel defense again fell victim to the trick play as sophomore running back Clifford Harris swept right before hitting fellow soph Rafael Chestnut in the back of the end zone for the score. Tar Heel Kentwan Balmer blocked the subsequent extra point putting the margin at 23-17 Duke with just 35 seconds left.
Brandon Tate worked his return magic for Carolina, returning the kick 97 yards for the score putting the Heels back on top 24-23 and silencing the small but vocal section of Blue Devil fans. Tate's return was his second on the season (at Notre Dame Nov. 4th) and third on his career (Utah last year) giving him the school record in just his second season.
Coming out from the break, the Heels appeared to take over, though Duke refused to quit.
Barrington Edwards’ four yard touchdown run put the Heels up 31-24 midway the third quarter but Duke answered immediately, scoring on a seven play 80 yard drive and converting the two point conversion to tie the game at 31.
After a three and out by the Tar Heel offense, Duke started from its 20 to start the fourth quarter. Devil back Ronnie Drummer inexplicably managed to lose 19 yards on a first down run after being corralled by Carolina's Jacoby Watkins all the way back at the Duke one. Three plays later, Duke's Alex Feinberg’s weak 35 yard punt settled into the hands of Carolina's Tate and the sophomore sensation weaved untouched 54 yards to the endzone to give the Heels the 38-31 lead.
(The return was Carolina's first punt return (non-blocked punt) since Michael Waddell's 89 yard return against Oklahoma in Bunting's first game as head coach. Tate also joined Charlie "Choo Choo" Justice and Eric Blount as the only Tar Heels to return a kick and punt for touchdowns in the same game. A 69 yard Tate yard punt return in the first half was nullified by penalty.)
“I was very confident coming in after the first half when I ran the one they called back,” Tate said, “I made my mind up I was going to get another one and everyone blocked for me. I have to give credit to those blockers too. It was big for us and gave us a little breathing room.”
Duke's offense could manage nothing and Carolina took over on its 29 with 10:40 left in the game. A 14 yard completion to Hakeem Nicks and two Edwards runs set up a Justin Warren 45 yard touchdown run and just 8:51 remaining.
The Heels led comfortably 45-31, and that feeling showed on the defensive side of the ball as the Devils took advantage in a hurry. Ten Duke plays later and the margin was just seven as Duke quarterback Thaddeus Lewis hit Tielor Robinson on a three yard pass for the score with 4:25 left.
That drive woke up the outnumbered Blue Devil contingent in the stands and the Duke defense. Trying to run clock and keep the game in hand, the Tar Heel offense and Dailey reverted to familiar form with the game on the line. Dailey's screen pass to Edwards on third down was picked off by Duke's Patrick Bailey and Bailey's run to pay dirt made it 45-44 Carolina with 2:49 to play.
"Can I say that on TV?" Tar Heel senior Jesse Holley said when asked about the interception. "Oh s**t, not this, not this. But you know, we worked real hard this week on field goal block and we knew those guys (Duke) had a weakness in the “A” gap."
Holley’s prophetic words rang true earlier in the game on the Balmer PAT block and would again. Down just one and looking to send the game into overtime, Duke needed one last extra point to tie and failing to shore up the “A” gap was the Blue Devils’ downfall.
Balmer again pushed through the middle of the Duke line and knocked away his second extra point of the day preserving the Tar Heel one point lead.
“Once they scored that touchdown and started acting like the game was over, we knew we were going to block it,” Balmer said about the play, “I just appreciate those guys out there behind me, Larry Edwards and Victor Worsley and the guy beside me, Cam Thomas, giving that same effort that I gave and we were fortunate enough to block it.”
With that, the Heels held on to the lead and following a failed Duke onside kick and a Barrington Edwards 18 yard run on third and six, Carolina locked up its ninth straight win in Durham and 16th out of the last 17 in the series.
While Bunting didn’t have much to say to the press following the game, Holley spoke on what Bunting meant to the players and program.
“He’s an A-plus kind of guy and he runs an A-plus program,” Holley said of his coach, “I am just so thankful that he came to New Jersey and gave me the opportunity to come here and fulfill my dream of playing football. It’s sad the way it ended, but I am glad it ended up on a winning note.
“On top of it being Coach Bunting’s last game, there are a bunch of seniors in there (locker room) who are playing their last game and we didn’t want to go out as losers. We didn’t want to be that class that said they lost the Victory Bell to Duke and that’s something that you will never ever – it never gets away from you for the rest of your life.
“That makes the season a little be easier to deal with,” Holley continued. “When you go out there and beat your two rivals the last two games of the season, it’s a jump start to the next season. The guys know what it feels like to win and the guys that haven’t played, they know what it’s like to win and know that the way these rivalries go, you have to bring your “A” game every time you come out here to play. We want to win every game you play, but these two are very special.”
So the Heels head into an offseason that brings new challenges and a new mindset to the football program starving to return to importance on the college football map. The returning players know they won’t be spending much time savoring any success they might have had on the field in 2006. They know there’s work to be done and wasting time is not an option.
“Next season started when that clock hit triple zero,” Barrington Edwards as he headed to the team bus following the game. For Edwards and the rest to the returning Heels, they’ll start the process of getting ready for 2007 Sunday night as Butch Davis arrives and officially takes over as the new face of Tar Heel football.