On a beautiful night in a stadium that has not seen so many people and so much passion in a long, long time, the Tar Heels could not or did not raise their level of play to match what they should have known was coming until the frenetic fourth quarter. And it’s probably something they have to learn by losing.
And for the first time in a long time, Duke is a pretty good opponent. Great, in fact, for most of this night. And one that might be around for a while.
The Tar Heels got off to a fast start, what they’ve been trying to do for the last four weeks, and blew the singular chance to silence the crowd and take the juice out of the home team when a long interception return to inside the Duke 10-yard line was nullified by an over-aggressive hit on the quarterback. Had Carolina not committed that penalty and gone up 10-0, it might have been a whole different ball game (even the blowout one columnist predicted).
But through three quarters, they settled for three field goals, which made it five straight 15-minute periods without crossing the goal line. With Duke loading the box to try to stop the magnificent Gio Bernard, Carolina started off throwing and was not effective after Bryn Renner got shaken up on a scramble up the middle.
As lousy as the Tar Heels played and as loud as the old horseshoe was through those first three quarters, Carolina finally came to life with a fake field goal and first down run by holder Tommy Hibbard and the squelching of a fake punt by Duke that gave the Heels a short field and the chance to crawl back closer from 14 points behind.
Somehow they lead 30-26 with just over three minutes left and were one stop from a most undeserving retention of the Victory Bell that’s been painted royal blue by now.
Duke, which had bamboozled UNC all night by running the ball up the gut for large chunks of yardage, went back to its traditional passing game. The Blue Devils matched the Tar Heels’ 91-yard march of minutes before with a last-ditch drive of 87 yards to the winning play on literally their last chance — 4th and goal at the 2. Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, playing on this night like Duke Coach David Cutcliffe’s protégés named Manning, fired the fatal bullet between double coverage.
“They made more plays than we did,” Larry Fedora said after his first taste of the Duke-Carolina rivalry. “We didn’t execute on offense and didn’t execute on defense. Simple as that.”
Maybe it was Renner, who doesn’t seem to play well right after getting his bell rung. Back-up Marquise Williams’ only pass of the night was a well-executed screen to Super-Gio that went for 40 yards. Why didn’t Williams at least finish that series that led to a field goal and 3-0 lead instead of a touchdown?
Maybe it was Carolina’s “NFL offensive line” that got outplayed by Duke’s anonymous blocking front until late in the game, blowing the Tar Heels front four or five off the line of scrimmage snap after snap.
Maybe it was UNC’s secondary, which for the second week in a row did not give up anything long over the top, but couldn’t keep Duke’s All-ACC receiver Conner Vernon from turning in critical long catch-and-runs on the last drive.
Or maybe it was Fedora, getting his first taste of the Carolina-Duke rivalry, who could not get his team to raise its level of intensity until the fourth quarter when the Tar Heels were whooping it up on the sideline and coming out en masse to join every timeout huddle in the dramatic last minute.