Epic Shootout |
Two bowl-bound rivals produced an offensive firework display in the 1994 regular season finale.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Jim Sumner
PHOTOS: Getty Images, UNCAC
orth Carolina and Duke first met on the gridiron in 1888. Duke wasn’t even Duke yet; it still was Trinity College. Grover Cleveland was President of the United States, Vincent Van Gogh still had all of both ears (until December 23rd at least), and Ernest Thayer was putting the finishing touches on “Casey at the Bat.”
In other words, a long time ago.
So, there aren’t a lot of absolutes one can make about the ancient rivalry. But here’s one that can’t be questioned. Fifteen years ago, November 1994, a North Carolina team that was heading for a bowl game met a Duke team that was heading for a bowl game. That’s right. Only once have North Carolina and Duke played in a bowl game in the same season.
And they celebrated by putting on a back-and-forth offensive explosion that stunned and wowed the overflow crowd of 40,000 at Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium.
Mack Brown was in his seventh season in Chapel Hill and had turned the Tar Heels into a power. His two previous teams had gone 9-3 and 10-3 and Carolina began the 1994 campaign ranked 18th in the AP poll.
Carolina started the 1994 season with wins in five of its first six games. The loss was a predictable 31-18 setback at third-ranked Florida State, a game that left FSU with a 20-0 mark in ACC play.
The season hit a bump in the road in late October in Charlottesville, when the 15th-ranked Tar Heels were outplayed in a 31-10 loss to Virginia. Wins over N.C. State and Wake Forest were sandwiched around a loss to Clemson. Carolina entered the season finale at Duke at 7-3, ranked No. 21.
Eight miles away Duke was undergoing a revival, albeit a short one, under new coach Fred Goldsmith. The Blue Devils started 7-0 before the inevitable loss to Florida State and entered the Carolina game at 8-2. Duke was ranked No. 24.
Neither team went into this game with a chance at the ACC title; Florida State had that locked up. The bowl pecking order would be impacted but neither team was ending its season that day.
But it was Carolina-Duke. Star UNC linebacker Mike Morton, now a dentist in the Kannapolis area, recalls, “I don’t remember anything about bowls going into that game. I don’t remember Duke’s record. I just know that I couldn’t stand the idea of losing to Duke in my final game.”
“I don’t remember anything about bowls going into that game. I don’t remember Duke’s record. I just know that I couldn’t stand the idea of losing to Duke in my final game.” -- Mike Morton
Over the years, Duke football generally has relied on the passing game. But the key to its 1994 resurgence was senior running back Robert Baldwin, who would lead the ACC with 1,187 rushing yards and be named the league’s player of the year.
Could Carolina control Baldwin?
Morton says that was the start of every defensive game plan. “Carl Torbush [defensive coordinator] had one mantra,” says Morton. “‘Stop the Run! Stop the Run! Stop the Run!’ We played a vanilla defense, a basic 4-3, with a cover 3 or cover 4. We did it with execution and pursuit. If you stop the run, you can control time of possession, make the other team one-dimensional. We thought we had a talent edge over Duke and could beat them if we could make them predictable.”
Carolina had different concerns on the other end of the ball. Starting quarterback Jason Stanicek was out with an ankle injury. Mike Thomas had filled in more than admirably the previous week in a 50-0 win over a woeful Wake Forest team that would win only a single conference game that season.
Wide receiver Marcus Wall says the team was behind Thomas. “We had complete confidence in Mike. He had experience and knew what he was doing. We weren’t worried.”
Morton has a more philosophical outlook. “We didn’t have a choice. We had to go with Mike. You deal with the realities as they present themselves. Why worry about something you can’t control?”
Carolina’s run defense was effective against Baldwin. He would end the game with a mere 31 yards on 13 rushes. That was the good news. The bad news was Duke’s success in the air. “They connected underneath the zone all day long,” Morton recalls. “We weren’t ready for it.”
Duke got on board first, scoring on a five-yard pass from Spence Fischer to Jon Jensen. Remember that combination.
Carolina lost no time in answering. Thomas hit Octavus Barnes for 22 yards on 3rd and 15 to keep alive the drive. Carolina then gave the ball to Barnes on an apparent end-around.
But Barnes had been a high-school quarterback in Wilson. “We had been working on a trick play off that formation all year in practice,” Wall says. “But we had never run it in a game. Coach [Darrell] Moody made the call. We thought it would work and it really worked.”
Wall slipped down the field unnoticed and Barnes hit him with a strike, a perfectly-executed 48-yard touchdown pass.
Duke was stopped on its next drive but Barnes fumbled the ensuing punt at the UNC 29. Two plays later Fischer hit tight end Bill Khayat with a 26-yard score.
Morton was the victim of this touchdown. “I wasn’t even yelled at when I returned to the sidelines,” he laughs. “Khayat made as good a catch as I’ve seen. I was all over him. I think I even got a hand on the ball. But he pulled it in. He was the real deal.”
Khayat would end the game with eight receptions for 104 yards.
“It was one of the most exciting games I ever played in. A rival, a formidable opponent. The teams ran every trick play imaginable. It was a fan’s dream.” -- Marcus Wall
Wall recalls telling Barnes on the sideline not to worry about the fumbled punt. “I’ll get it back.” This may not be Babe Ruth calling his shot but Wall returned the kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown.
Duke responded with an 11-play, 73 yard-drive, mostly in the air. After getting a 1st and goal at the 4, Duke was forced to settle for a 22-yard Tom Cochran field goal. The first period ended with Duke up 17-14, five scores in 15 pulsating minutes.
The game settled down a bit in the second quarter. A 23-yard Thomas to Barnes pass set up an 18-yard Trip Pignetti field goal that tied the game at 17 but Duke regained the lead on a 7-yard David Lowman run. It was 24-17 at intermission.
North Carolina dominated the third quarter with two long drives. Having stung Duke with long strikes from the passing game and special teams, the Tar Heels began to wear down Duke’s defense with a time-consuming, ball-control ground game. Carolina’s primary runners were the non-related Johnsons, sophomore Leon and speedy trackster Curtis.
Carolina advanced to the Duke 30. Carolina rolled the dice on 4th and 5, with Curtis Johnson picking up 29 yards to the one. He scored on the next play, finishing a 9-play, 80-yard drive.
Curtis Johnson also figured in Carolina’s next score, taking a screen pass from Thomas and rambling 30 yards to the Duke 32. Thomas scored several plays later on a 17-yard run. Another 80-yard drive, this one took 11 plays. The third period ended with UNC up 31-24 and poised to pull away.
The fourth period started the same way the third ended. The Tar Heels got a defensive stop and chewed up more clock, 14 plays worth, on the way to a 22-yard Pignetti field goal.
It was 34-24.
Duke’s offense was stuck in neutral but they used special teams to get back in the game. In the middle of the fourth quarter linebacker Bailey Chase Luetgert blocked a Thomas punt. Duke took over at the UNC 21. Fischer hit Corey Thomas with a pass from the 12 and it was 34-31 with 6:25 left.
Luetgert, by the way, going by Bailey Chase, plays a former Texas football player named Butch Ada on the TV series Saving Grace.
North Carolina badly needed to burn some clock but couldn’t sustain a drive. Duke got the ball back.
With time running out, Duke’s inability to run became irrelevant. Fischer moved the ball quickly, finishing the 4-play drive with an 11-yard pass to Thomas. Duke led 38-34, with 2:47 remaining.
Wall could only return the kickoff to the 15. Down by four, a field goal would do North Carolina little good. The Tar Heels needed to go 85 yards in less than three minutes with a back-up quarterback at the helm. They picked up one first down, advancing to the 29.
Wall wasn’t concerned: “We didn’t have much time. But we felt like we could score at will. They couldn’t stop us.”
Barnes made the confidence pay off. The speedy wideout got open on a crossing pattern and Thomas hit him in full stride. Duke defensive back Zaid Abdul-Aleem dove for Barnes and came up grasping air. Barnes tip-toed down the sidelines, 71 yards for the score.
Pignetti’s PAT put Carolina up 41-38. But the quick score left Duke two minutes to respond. A 15-yard excessive celebration penalty didn’t help matters.
Two minutes can be an eternity in college football. Morton gives the defender’s perspective: “First, you don’t want to do anything stupid. Don’t give up the home run, don’t commit any penalties. Keep them in bounds, keep the clock moving. Keep everything in front of you. But they had been hitting those underneath routes all day and too many of those would lead to field goal. So, somebody has to make a play.”
“They played the first one in 1888. They played the best one in 1994.” -- Mickey McCarthy, Raleigh News & Observer (11/20/94)
Duke had been living on passes to Jensen, a lanky former quarterback who would end the game with 14 receptions for 174 yards. Duke moved the ball to the Carolina 28, close enough for a long field goal but not close enough for comfort. Two incomplete passes led to third down.
Duke went to the Jensen-well once too often. The ball, Jensen, and UNC defensive backs Fuzzy Lee and Sean Boyd arrived at the same time. The pass was tipped and Lee came down with it at the UNC 12.
It still wasn’t over. Duke used their timeouts, leading to a 4th and 7 with 14 seconds left. Rather than risk a blocked punt, Thomas took a safety, making the score 41-40.
Duke got the ball back and Fischer connected with Thomas on a pass to the UNC 42. With only four seconds remaining, Tom Cochran attempted a 60-yard field goal that never had a chance.
Fischer ended the game with 395 passing yards and four touchdowns. But UNC trumped that with a balanced offense, some big plays on special teams and a defense that made a game-saving play with its back to the wall.
A look at the stats shows the balance of Carolina’s offense. Leon Johnson rushed for 140 yards on 23 carries. Curtis Johnson added 63 yards on 10 rushes, Thomas 38 yards, and Malcolm Marshall 34 yards. But a UNC offense criticized by some as overly-reliant on the ground game produced yards and points through the air. Thomas hit 10 of 14 passes for 210 yards and that doesn’t include the 48-yard Barnes to Wall pass.
On the defensive side of the ball, Morton made 15 tackles, four more than fellow linebacker Kerry Mock.
After this epic shootout, the bowl games were anticlimactic. North Carolina was invited to the Sun Bowl, where they fell to Texas 35-31. Duke lost to Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl.
Marcus Wall is back in his hometown of Fayetteville and maintains fond memories of the clash with Duke. “It was one of the most exciting games I ever played in. A rival, a formidable opponent. The teams ran every trick play imaginable. It was a fan’s dream.”
Morton agrees and adds that Thomas was the unsung hero. “Nobody could have expected that kind of performance under those conditions. He kept his composure and made the plays he had to. It was a great way to end my college career.”
Jim Sumner is a Raleigh-based freelance writer who specializes in ACC sports. He is the former sports curator at the North Carolina Museum of History.