UNC sleepwalked through the better part of three quarters against an inspired and well-prepared Duke team before finally waking up and having a huge break go the Heels' way to take the lead. Then the Blue Devils responded with their longest drive of the season and broke Carolina's heart en route to a 33-30 decision.
First, let's give all credit to Duke and what they did rather than what UNC didn't do. On offense, Duke pushed the Tar Heels around up front and established a ground game they have lacked most of the season. On defense, the Devils took away Carolina's vertical passing game and was willing to let Gio Bernard try to beat them all on his own, which he almost did. Duke also didn't implode as it did last week after moving out to a big lead against Virginia Tech, reaching inside and putting together an 87-yard, game-winning drive after all the momentum could have been sucked out of them.
On the other hand, Carolina had plenty of chances on both sides of the ball but in the end couldn't get a stop when they needed one. Duke played with more heart and intensity and deserved to win the ball game, but once again UNC never gave up when they could have been run out of the stadium, so something deserves to be said for that as well.
Still, a loss is a loss and is reflected in this week's GBU report:
Giovani Bernard: 143 yards rushing, 66 yards receiving, 2 touchdowns, and a johnny-on-the-spot hustle play on the fumble recovery that (briefly) gave Carolina the lead. For most of the first half, Bernard was all the Heels had on offense. The sophomore is clearly one of the top players in the ACC.
4th Down Conversions: Carolina was 4/4 on 4th down, including a gutsy fake field goal call. The Heels are among the country's best on 4th down. Unfortunately, that is somewhat of a reflection of what the team is doing on 3rd down.
Tre Boston: Boston had an eye-popping 17 tackles and an interception. Again, it's a good news/bad news stat; when a defensive back is your leading tackler, that means a lot of plays have made it into the second level of the defense.
Penalties: After 30 penalties in the last two games, the most-penalized team in the ACC only had two penalties for 20 yards. But one of the penalties negated an interception and ultimately led to Duke's first TD.
Bryn Renner (for 3 quarters): Renner was shaken up on the first possession and looked shaky for most of the game. He made bad decisions and there was pretty much no production through the air until late in the 3rd quarter when somehow the cobwebs were cleared and the offense started clicking.
3rd Downs: Third down was not kind to Carolina. On offense, UNC only converted 4 of 15 chances (which is why there were four 4th down attempts), while on defense, UNC gave up 9 of 18 to Duke.
Defensive Pressure: UNC generated little pressure against what should have been an undersized Blue Devil line. Carolina had only one sack and two QB hurries on 39 pass attempts by Sean Renfree. In other words, the veteran Duke QB had all day to throw and pick apart the UNC defense.
Tackling: This continues to be a bugaboo for this team. UNC only had 3 tackles for loss, but had many more chances. Yards after catch and yards after contact were huge for Duke.
Red Zone Offense: UNC's first three trips into the red zone yielded three field goals, including a first-and-goal on the first possession. When you lose a game by 3 points and had three chances to get 7 instead of 3, a 4-point swing on any of those possessions would have been huge. Again, an ongoing problem for this team.
Rushing Defense: Duke's inability to move the ball on the ground was well-known, but the Devils sliced and diced the Tar Heels for a season-high 234 yards rushing, and it didn't matter who was running as three Duke RBs broke 60 yards. Moreover, the UNC defensive front only had two rushes stopped for loss, and one of those was the fake punt.
The Final Drive: So after snuffing out a fake punt, getting a huge break and coming all the way back from down 14 points to take the first lead since it was 3-0, all UNC has to do is keep Duke out of the end zone from 83 yards away. Instead, Renfree led the team down the field with surgical precision and converted three 3rd downs, each over 5 yards, and after the only 3rd down they didn't convert, Duke scored the game-winner on 4th down.
So UNC has now lost its first game of the season with Gio Bernard in the lineup. This would be a place where you could utter platitudes about how the team never gave up, kept fighting, and has lost its three games by a combined 9 points. The reality is that UNC is 1-3 on the road and had a chance to leave Durham in sole possession of 1st place in the ACC Coastal Division with the win. Duke played inspired football and was the better team, as most of the players and coaching staff have indicated. But the only good thing to come from this is that the staff should have the team's full attention as NC State comes to town next weekend.