North Carolina (6-3, 2-3 ACC) moved one game closer to bowl eligibility by combining lethal doses of Houston and a stifling defense in wearing down the Blue Devils for the 19th time in the last 20 meetings between these bitter rivals.
Houston led a Tar Heel ground attack that totaled 192 net yards on 51 carries, including Jhay Boyd’s three-yard reverse for a touchdown that all but cemented the victory midway through the fourth quarter. The game’s lone touchdown increased UNC’s lead to 16-6 – a near insurmountable deficit for a Duke offense that had been throttled all afternoon long.
North Carolina battered and bruised Lewis (16-of-33, 113 passing yards, INT) and the nation’s fifth-best passing attack in the form of 14 quarterback hurries, eight pass breakups, three sacks and two interceptions. The Tar Heels held the Blue Devils to 212 yards below their season average through the air (325.1 ypg). David Cutcliffe’s squad managed just 125 total yards of offense.
UNC placekicker Casey Barth (40, 29) and Duke’s Nick Maggio (23, 26) exchanged field goal scores in the first half, but the Wilmington, N.C. sophomore added two more (41, 33) after intermission as the Tar Heels slowly pulled away from their hated neighbors.
North Carolina held Duke to just 43 yards on 26 plays in the second half.
INSIDE THE GAME
A Career Day for Houston
Houston was adjusting his pads on the sidelines just seconds into UNC’s opening possession when he heard his name being called frantically to get into the game. When he passed Shaun Draughn coming off the field after the offense’s initial first-down play, the immediate assumption was that something was wrong with his shoe.
Only later would Houston find out that Draughn injured his left shoulder and would not return to the contest.
“Shaun and I normally have equal carries – he gets like 90 [yards] and I get like 40 or 50 [yards], so I just had to put it all together and take up his half this game,” Houston told a throng of reporters during his postgame interview.
The Matthews, N.C. junior averaged 4.4 yards per clip in totaling 164 yards on 37 carries. His grueling, hard-hitting style has served him well over the past two seasons as John Shoop’s ideal short-yardage back, but on Saturday, Houston’s vision and ability to break tackles on first and second down was critical in North Carolina’s 11-of-20 conversion rate on third down. It also played a crucial role in UNC dominating the time of possession, 38:33 to 21:27.
“When you get the ball on 1st-and-10, it’s different than getting the ball on 3rd-and-short,” Houston said. “On 3rd-and-short, you’re trying to find the hole and just hit it. On 1st-and-10, you’re trying to make a play. So you’re trying to bounce off tacklers and read the hole and try to find a seam to cut through to try to make more yardage.”
During North Carolina’s lone touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, Houston accounted for 10 of the 12 plays and tallied 55 rushing yards (that drive alone would have served as the fourth-best rushing performance of his career).
Butch Davis indicated in his postgame press conference that an update on Draughn may be available on Sunday afternoon.
Yates’ Struggles Continue
When starting quarterback T.J. Yates had what he called an “embarrassing” performance against Georgia Tech nearly six weeks ago, there were legitimate excuses available if he had chosen to use any. The Tar Heel ground game had managed just 52 rushing yards on 56 carries in its previous two outings against BCS opponents, and offensive linemen Jonathan Cooper and Lowell Dyer were on the sidelines. Yates spent the majority of the Connecticut and Georgia Tech contests scurrying for cover much like Duke’s Thad Lewis did against UNC.
Yates struggled once again on Saturday, completing 16-of-28 passes for 119 yards and one interception. The red-shirt junior overthrew Erik Highsmith in the first quarter on a seam route that would have resulted in an early touchdown, and then overthrew a wide open Greg Little (three catches for 26 yards) on a 3rd-and-7 in the second quarter that would have given North Carolina a 1st-and-goal at the 5-yard-line. His third-quarter interception was also due to an overthrown pass that was tipped.
But this time, the excuses that existed more than a month ago were absent. Despite Dyer sitting out due to a stomach illness and center Cam Holland missing the second half due to injury, the offensive line refused to cave in, even though true freshmen Travis Bond and Brennan Williams played significant minutes.
Yates was hurried just four times and sacked twice, and admitted in his postgame interview that the new-and-improved rushing attack has improved his protection and opened up more options for him in the pocket. But inside of manufacturing an impressive come-from-behind victory against the odds like he did in East Hartford against the Huskies, Yates’ play may have prevented a much wider margin of victory on Saturday.
“I played all right,” Yates replied when asked about his performance. “I missed some passes. With the interception, I could have made a better read. The ball got tipped up into the air. But there were definitely some things that I could have done better.”
Just as North Carolina’s passing game struggled early in the season with a non-existent rushing attack, Houston needs Yates to step up and make the necessary throws over the next three weeks if the Tar Heels have any hopes of improving on last season’s 8-4 regular season record.
The Makings of a One-Dimensional Offense
Duke entered this rivalry showdown averaging 383.0 passing yards in ACC play, but the Blue Devils had been able to run the ball just enough (75.3 ypg) to keep opposing defenses honest. That option was unavailable on Saturday.
North Carolina held Duke to 12 total rushing yards, the fewest amount since holding Wake Forest to minus-two yards in 2000. Re’quan Boyette ran for four yards on three carries, Jay Hollingsworth ground out one yard on one carry, and Desmond Scott netted zero yards on five carries.
Aside from Lewis’ back-to-back scampers in the third quarter that netted 33 yards, the Blue Devils were held to minus-22 yards on 17 attempts. By completely eradicating the ground game, the Tar Heel defense was able to pin its proverbial ears back and go full bore at Lewis, leaving the Duke quarterback on his back more often than not.
On Duke’s final possession, the head referee helped Lewis out by handing the senior his helmet after having it knocked off by a swarm of Carolina defenders.