Facing its 10th loss and the prospect of being Duke's first Atlantic Coast Conference victim since November 1999, Dan Orner, who had previously missed two field goals and an extra point, lifted the Tar Heels to a 23-21 victory with a 47-yard field goal as time expired in front of a near-capacity crowd of 33,002 at Wallace Wade Stadium.
"I knew what I had to do to get the job done," Orner said. "I had a really good practice on Thursday and didn't miss any field goals. I might have been a little overconfident going into the first two kicks and got a reality check on the extra point. Everybody kept coming down to me and saying it's going to come down to a field goal."
"I guess I can still say I'm in shock, but it's starting to wear off," said a wet UNC (3-9, 1-7 ACC) coach John Bunting, obviously the victim a Gatorade celebration. "It's one heck of a win. We're ecstatic about having a win here at the end of the season."
It appeared as if one of the worst seasons in school history would finish with one of the most disturbing and embarrassing losses ever. Duke (2-10, 0-8) had lost 24 consecutive ACC games, and with the Victory Bell on the line and the reality of being the Blue Devils' first conference victim of the century, the Tar Heels saved face, and saved the Bell too.
Duke had just improbably taken the lead as the Devils converted a fourth-and-nine from UNC's 47 and then scored on a 33-yard pass play from quarterback Adam Smith to wide receiver Senterrio Landrum, who was surprisingly wide open as he waltzed into the end zone. The point after gave Duke a 21-20 lead with 53 seconds left, and its students the impetus to sit on the walls that border the stands and field surface, intent on storming the field in celebration.
"I knew we could move the ball quickly on them," said tight end Bobby Blizzard. "We had a lot of time, so I felt we could do it. I didn't want to see them (Duke students) celebrate."
But Darian Durant (21-35, 262 yards), who had missed the last four-plus games because of a broken finger, wasn't about to give up.
On first down from the 25, he found senior receiver Sam Aiken (8 receptions, 88 yards) for 17 yards. He then scrambled for a 12-yard run, giving the Heels first down at the Duke 46. Two incomplete passes later Durant hit Blizzard for a 6-yard gain, stopping the clock with eight seconds left and the ball at the Devils' 40-yard-line.
Still out of field goal range, UNC ran another play, in which Durant hooked up with a falling Aiken for a 10-yard gain and a quick timeout.
"The first thing I looked at was the coverage," described Durant about the completion to Aiken. "They were in soft coverage. They were trying to blitz me. Knowing that they had been blitzing all game I knew we could take advantage of the one-on-one coverage there and that's what we did."
Duke used its last timeout in an attempt to ice Orner, but the junior transfer from Michigan State dreamt this moment would come.
"I've had dreams the whole year that sooner or later I'd kick a game winner," Orner reflected. "I also had dreams that I was going to miss an extra point. Both of them came true. I'm glad the second came true after the first one."
And he also received a vote of confidence from his most important mate, holder John Lafferty.
"When I went out there I really wasn't thinking about anything," Orner said. "All I kept hearing was John. John Lafferty kept saying to me 'Just keep your head down.' And he said, 'Man this is going to be fun when we win.' That's what he kept saying, 'Man it's gonna be fun, this is so much fun.'"
With four seconds left and Duke smelling its streak ending and its student body ready to swarm the field, Orner set up, planted, and kicked a relatively low and heavy ball that sailed over the goalposts for the 47-yard game winner.
"I was so nervous I didn't know what to think," said Blizzard. "The ball looked funny. It went out and then it curved back in and I saw it go in. And I threw down my helmet and I tried to catch Orner but he was too fast, and I tried to chase him down and I just stopped."
"Get in there, please Lord, help us," senior linebacker Malcolm Stewart said went through his mind when Orner's kick was in the air. "I was just hoping and praying. It was a hard drive, and I thought it would be closer. I am just so happy it went through there. I felt like pushing it."
Orner's celebration may have been just as exciting, or at least entertaining. After the ball went through, the 5-foot-7, 170-pounder turned sprinted toward the other end of the stadium, right into the massive plastic Duke football helmet as his teammates followed, ultimately plowing into the object as if intent on tearing it down with the total disregard that makes rivalries special.
"I had a dream I was going to kick a game winner at Carolina and run out the opposite end of the stadium and run all the way down to Franklin Street," Orner said. "And I said to myself, 'Man, it would be nice if I could run through that helmet after we kick the game winner, and I was just floating down the field."
And he wasn't alone.
"I took off running (toward the helmet)," said Stewart, who was joined by about 15 other Tar Heels. "I almost took the helmet down."
"The main thing I wanted to do was go hug the seniors," Durant said about the celebration. "Those guys were the ones who stuck by me in the class of 1999, and I got real close with a lot of those guys out there. I just wanted to hug a lot of those guys and tell them I enjoyed playing with them."
And for the Tar Heels, losers of six straight - the last four by an average score of 43-8, it was a sweet victory.
"It is sweet alright," said Stewart. "This is a great for the guys to go into the offseason and get ready for next year. And to go out like this, it is real sweet."
And while the team saved face in so many ways, it also retained the Victory Bell for the 13th straight year.
"It's (the Victory Bell) got a place in our locker room," said offensive lineman Jeb Terry. "It's been there for 13 years. We have to make sure it stays there. The locker room would feel weird without it there."
"We had it (Bell) out there on Thursday all practice," Bunting said. "It was something we spoke about with the team early on. It's very important, this is a big game for us and it always will be."
The score was knotted at 14 entering the fourth quarter after UNC scored on a Jacque Lewis 1-yard run and on a Durant 1-yard keeper - just the Heels' seventh rushing touchdown of the season. Duke's came on a 3-yard scoring run by Alex Wade and a 19-yard TD reception by Chris Douglas.
Carolina took the lead early in the fourth quarter on a 37-yard scoring toss from Durant to receiver Jawarski Pollock to take a 20-14 lead with 13:36 left. The Tar Heels held the lead until Duke's implausible fourth-down conversion and go-ahead score in the last minute.
Lewis's 102 yards on 17 carries makes him the only UNC tailback to hit the century mark all season.
The last time UNC converted a game-winning field goal as time expired was in 1986 when Lee Gliarmis' kick defeated Maryland, 32-30.
That boot wasn't nearly as emotional as Orner's was today. After nearly four months of missed coverage, bad snaps, interceptions, missed blocks, fumbles, little run defense, untimely penalties, crucial injuries, and a drop in confidence like an anchor in a baby pool, the Tar Heels can go into the offseason feeling positive about their last moments on the gridiron. And this should carry them, they say, through the rigorous workouts coming over the next seven months.
"I think this will definitely help us through the workouts because we know what it takes to win close games and we know what it takes to overcome what we have this year," Blizzard said. "I think we are will going to be excited to get back to work."
And do so looking at that bell, which will be a constant reminder of one of this season's brightest moments shining last.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.