The Heels finally put it all together.
After ten games of watching the defense struggle, UNC forced two early turnovers to take a 14-0 lead on the way to a 45-20 win in Durham to bring the Victory Bell back to Chapel Hill.
If you had scripted a beginning to this game that would have been perfect for UNC it may very well have looked something like what transpired. Duke, which has played extremely well over mostly two seasons by avoiding mistakes, did just the opposite. Thomas Sirk and then Anthony Boone coughed up the football on back-to-back possession with the former doing it on Duke's first drive of the game after a Tar Heel punt. UNC took immediate advantage of the Sirk fumble taking the ball 78 yards for a touchdown on a three yard toss from Marquise Williams to Quinshad Davis. On the next Duke possession, the Boone fumble was scooped up by Tim Scott who returned it ten yards for a 14-0 Tar Heel advantage.
Duke responded but needed a 31-yard catch from Jamison Crowder on 4th and 1 to extend a drive that resulted in a Blue Devil touchdown. The problem for Duke was there was no answer for UNC's offense which ripped off another long drive. T.J. Logan's 47 yard scamper set the Heels up at the Duke one and after three failed attempts to run the ball in, Williams found Mack Hollins on a fade route for a 21-7 lead. A Duke punt followed by a Ryan Switzer 45-yard reception put the Heels back in the red zone. This time it was Williams sneaking from the one to put the Heels up a very surprising 28-7 early in the second quarter.
At this point the game took a weird turn for UNC. The first oddity was the defense which stopped Duke at every turn. With the exception of the first drive that ended with a fumble and the scoring drive, Duke's offense was stagnant. The Tar Heels, which have been gashed for most of the season, suddenly found ways to stop Duke's offense. The pressure was solid, there was sufficient clogging of the running lanes and the pass coverage was mostly sufficient. After the Heels took a 28-7 lead, UNC held the Blue Devils to 53 yards and zero points. The play of the defense was crucial in this stretch thanks to a surprising and sudden lack of ball security by Marquise Williams.
On three straight Tar Heel possessions, UNC drove deep into Duke territory with a chance to run the lead up to 28 points or more. All three times, Williams fumbled the ball away. Two of those were the results of Williams refusing to take a sack when it was the smarter play. During any other game this season, these mistakes would have been a disaster. In this game, the Heels defense proved equal to the task. Each time Williams fumbled the ball, the defense prevented Duke was capitalizing on it and the Heels held a 21 point lead at the break.
The second half began with plenty of trepidation and questions. Would Duke make adjustments to stop UNC's offense? Would the Tar Heel defense of the previous ten games make an appearance? Those 21 points were totally coming back to bite the Heels when it counted most right? As it turns out, none of that was really a concern. Duke did play better offensively and was able to start moving the ball effectively. By the time that happened, UNC had taken a 38-7 lead. UNC's M.J. Stewart snagged an interception on Duke's first possession of the second half to end a drive. The Tar Heels then used 4:38 to go 68 yards to take a 35-7 lead. T.J. Logan twisted into the end zone on a fourth and goal from the one to give the Heels a 28 point lead. After forcing another punt, UNC moved the ball and settled for a 30-yard field goal. Thomas Moore's make was the longest of the season for the Heels and more importantly made the lead five scores.
Duke wasn't quite done getting as close as 38-20 with eight minutes left but UNC was able to recover an onside kick and gain great field position. Williams 16-yard run gave the Heels a 45-20 lead and shut the door on Duke's hopes of winning the Coastal Division for a second straight season.
UNC's offense was utterly dominating from start to finish. UNC finished the evening with 591 yards of total offense and Logan's 116 yards was the first time all season the Tar Heels had a 100-yard rusher not named Marquise Williams. Williams ended the game with 95 yards and Romar Morris had 98 putting the Heels just seven yards short of having three 100-yard rushers in one game. UNC posted 315 yards rushing to go along with 276 yards passing by Williams. Ryan Switzer had a big receiving game with 109 yards.
The story for this game is the Tar Heel defense which held Duke to 378 yards, second only to the 357 yards Virginia Tech was limited to on October 4th. It was only the second time this season UNC has held an FBS opponent under 400 yards. Duke's 20 points was the lowest scoring total for a Tar Heel opponent this season.
Aside from the three turnovers and a holding call which negated a T.J. Logan touchdown, UNC played about as close to perfect as anyone could ask. UNC also did it on the biggest stage against a rival that was poised to win the division. With all the troubles the Tar Heels have had at times this season from a historicall awful defense to the Wainstein report to renewed NCAA attention added to the mix, this was badly needed win. For most of the season it felt like the Tar Heels were floundering and the gap between UNC and Duke growing in football. One game doesn't cure all UNC's ills but for now Larry Fedora has stopped the bleeding.