No kidding. We briefly discussed the game, and, as he walked out the door to go to a meeting, he left me with this observation: “But you have to consider that Duke is a good… well, Duke isn’t a s***ty team this year.”
This loss was particularly tough to swallow from a football standpoint because, as Jon so eloquently pointed out, Duke has had a pretty awful football team for a long time. UNC had won 21 of the previous 22 matchups heading into last night, and many of those games were blowouts. The Blue Devils hadn’t qualified for a bowl since 1995, and the last time they were ranked in the Top 10 of a national poll, the United States was fighting in World War II. From 1999 through 2007, Duke compiled an atrocious 13-90 record, including a 22-game losing streak from 2005-2007. In short, Duke has basically been the laughingstock of the ACC in football for the last fifteen years or so, the epitome of a basketball school in a basketball conference.
Because of the prominence of the two basketball programs, people often point to the Carolina-Duke rivalry as the best in sports. Taking a cursory glance at the results of the last two decades and at the attitude of the Tar Heels fan base, however, it is easy to see that the rivalry has not extended to the gridiron of late.
Most UNC fans acknowledge that our biggest football rival is now NC State, not Duke; Coach Fedora seems to have bought into that notion as well, given how he has instructed the team to sing the “tag” to the alma mater here (Click “FB: All-Access at Miami” and start at the 4:30 mark). Even the ESPNU introduction to the “rivalry game” focused more on the basketball side of things, first highlighting the Hansbrough-Henderson scrap and mixing in images of the two basketball teams with older clips of the football squads.
Don’t get me wrong; we obviously dislike Duke when it comes to football. It’s just that the feeling of mutual respect that embodies a true rivalry hasn’t been there recently. Instead of being excited for a compelling contest when Duke comes up on the schedule, UNC fans expect to dominate and fear only the potential embarrassment that would result should we improbably lose.
With all of that said, this incarnation of the Blue Devils is different from those of recent years. Coach David Cutcliffe has brought a change of culture over to Wallace-Wade Stadium, and Duke has been improving slowly. After a couple years of nearly breaking through, it seemed as though their rebuilding effort was finally coming to fruition this season. They opened 5-2, with the losses coming against a ranked Stanford squad and to an inconsistent Virginia Tech team on the road. In arguably their biggest game of the year, with the pressure of potentially becoming bowl-eligible weighing on their shoulders, the Devils came out strong, didn’t back down when the going got tough, and escaped with a hard-fought victory.
It killed me to write that last sentence, because the Heels did nearly the exact opposite.
We came out slow to start the game and had to settle for just two field goals in the first half. While Duke was reputed to be more of a finesse, passing team (just what you would expect from the Blue Devils), they simply rammed it down our throats with a three-headed rushing attack of Josh Snead, Jela Duncan, and Juwan Thompson. Time after time in the first half, Duke ran straight up the middle for huge chunks of yardage, finishing runs by falling forward over the UNC defenders. They looked like a team that simply wanted it more…and maybe they did.
UNC had a chance to really turn the tide at the start of the third quarter, but again failed to capitalize on good opportunities. After forcing a quick punt and receiving the ball in good field position, the Heels failed to punch it in for a touchdown and allowed Duke to march right back down the field for a field goal of their own. A quick three-and-out later, and Carolina was left with one quarter to make up a two-touchdown deficit.
Despite having just lost all the momentum, Sean Renfree calmly drove the Devils down the field, converting three third-downs with relative ease. In what should have been a staring contest, the Tar Heels, particularly the defensive line, seemingly got an eyelash caught and couldn’t stop blinking. While they dug in somewhat to force a 4th-and-2 at the UNC 5-yard line with 19 seconds to play, it was hard to feel confident that they could come up with the stop we so desperately needed. These are the kinds of moments you dream about as a player, the opportunities to be a hero, make a big play, and win the game for your team and your school…but we know how it actually ended.
The reactions of my classmates on Twitter mirrored my own internal mental ramblings, ranging from disbelief (“I can’t believe we actually lost to Duke.”) to anger (“This is a $%!?-ing joke.”) to frustration (“First Austin Rivers, now this? Come on.”). Having to watch the Duke students rush the field and the players paint the Victory Bell was a twisted punishment for supporting one of the most inconsistent teams I’ve ever watched. The Tar Heels are a talented group of football players, without question…but something’s missing. I wonder if we’ll ever figure out what it is.