“I had a penalty (15-yard unsportsmanlike in the third quarter) earlier in the game that was a huge mistake,” running back Greg Little said following the game. “I told Coach [Butch] Davis that if I had anything to do with it, we were going to win. I promised him that and we did.”
Little, in only his second game at running back for the Tar Heels, rushed 26 times for 158 yards, the final 25 yards on the game's final play as Carolina eeked past the Blue Devils 20-14 in overtime. Little’s big day continued a 41-year streak of Carolina running backs rushing for 100 yards in a game at least once during a season.
In another season first, Little and the Heels finally found a bit of late game luck. The 1-10 Blue Devils nearly shocked the Kenan Stadium crowd but freshman kicker Nick Maggio missed his second field goal of the day to end regulation. Maggio’s 40-yard attempt was just wide left abruptly ending a premature Blue Devil celebration replete with a Gatorade bath for beleaguered Duke Coach Ted Roof.
Duke’s first possession of overtime ended in similar fashion, this time as kicker Joe Surgan missed from 42 yards out, setting up Little’s late game heroics.
“I really wanted the ball in my hands (and) that specific play,” Little said of the final play, “I had one man to beat (so) I ran hard and scored…it was 36 Power and it had been working all game.”
“I know if we would have lost to Duke, there would have been a lot of people on me about that,” Little said of beating his hometown school. “I know that I’m five minutes away from them and it (losing) wouldn’t have been too sweet.”
The win puts the Heels 4-8 for the season and 3-5 in the ACC – out of bowl consideration, but not without a foundation to build upon for next year.
“The one thing I told our players,” Davis said later, “sometimes you never know during the course of a season why all the games have to be so close. All the tough perseverance going through the Virginia game, the NC State game, the Georgia Tech game...all the games coming down to the wire, sometimes the answer doesn’t always get revealed to you immediately.
“Sometimes it gets revealed like today……a great deal of credit has to go to the senior class. They held this team together and inspired them every week to hang in there and remain a family, keep competing. You can’t say enough about those seniors.”
From the start, it appeared last year’s 45-44 shootout would be repeated. The Heels took the opening kickoff and promptly marched 55 yards in just six plays for the opening score. Quarterback T.J. Yates was sacked on the first play from scrimmage but a 15 yard face mask penalty against the Devils put the Heels at the Duke 40 and three Yates passes and a Little six yard run set up the Heels with first and goal from the Duke nine. Yates found Brandon Tate for the score and Connor Barth’s PAT made it 7-0 Carolina.
Duke marched 67 yards in 12 plays converting a third and goal from the Carolina 25 on a Thaddeus Young touchdown to wide out Jomar Wright. The extra point made it 7-7 with 6:33 left in the first quarter.
But the shootout quickly turned into a popgun fight as neither team could manage to find points though Duke dominated the first half time of possession.
Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks hauled in a Yates fourth down pass late in the second quarter to break Jawarski Pollock’s single season reception record. Nicks would end the game with six catches for 38 yards Nicks ended his sophomore year with 74 catches for 958 yards. Those 958 yards stand third on Carolina’s all time single season yardage list.
With the third quarter mirroring most of the first half, the Blue Devils finally broke the scoring drought less than a minute into the fourth quarter as Lewis found Wright in the back of the endzone putting Duke up 14-7 and leaving the Kenan Stadium crowd on edge.
The teams traded punts and the Heels took over with 11:15 remaining in the game with one goal in mind - forcing the non-existent Carolina running game into action. And for one of a very few times on the year, the plan came through.
"Our passing game wasn't working very well at all," UNC quarterback Yates said, "Coach challenged the offensive line at halftime to see what they had and they definitely responded."
Little’s ten yard run started the drive and after another Little run, Tate took the end around and avoided a big loss and picked up 32 yards to the Duke 24. Two Little runs set up a Yates sneak for the first down and on third and four from the Duke seven, Little reenacted his South Carolina five yard touchdown dive, going into the left side of the endzone for the tying score. WR Nicks may have set the record for catches earlier, but his other talents paved the way for Little’s leap.
“I was kind of fatigued, but I knew the ball was coming to me so I had to dig deep,” Little said, “The guy – Hakeem was blocking him and that’s the best I’ve seen Hakeem block – I was running and I felt like I wasn’t going to make it to the edge so I had to dig deep once again and I just took off.”
With the score tied and the Kenan crowd finally in the game, the Heels forced a Duke punt and took over 75 yards from the win. Four more Little runs and a Yates to Zack Pianalto gave the Heels a fourth and one at the Duke 46 with just over 1:30 remaining and left Davis with a potential game turning decision to make. Davis sent out the punting unit opting to force the Devils to drive the length of the field with any chance to win.
“Fundamentally, I think you can’t coach with a crystal ball, but the one thing I thought about is that if you don’t make it,” Davis said of the situation in his postgame press conference, “you are going to give Duke the ball somewhere around two minutes left to go near midfield with three time outs. Maybe one pass out of four downs loses you the game….obviously if he makes (the field goal) that would be on me.”
Duke got the chance it needed but missed and the rest was a little bit of Carolina-Duke rivalry history and Davis winds up his first year with a win.
“There’s no question that ending on a positive note, beating a rival, winning an ACC game,” Davis said of the win, “It’s a springboard that helps you get into recruiting and into the offseason...I’m excited about the opportunity to teach them more football.”
And the Carolina seniors leave knowing big things are coming to Carolina Football.
“The work ethic, the effort, the attitude, it’s there.” Senior defensive tackle Kentwan Balmer said after the win. “That’s the swagger I’ve been talking about all year. That’s what I can sum up right there – attitude, effort, character. I just see big things happening for this program and I am proud to be a part of it.”