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Duke 42, UNC 35: UNC unable to keep up again

UNC was unable to claim the Victory Bell back from Durham as they struggled to keep the Blue Devils from the end zone

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Duke Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

A series of frustrating losses for the UNC Tar Heels just gained another chapter with yet another one-possession game ending the wrong way for Larry Fedora’s team, this time against rival Duke. It was nothing we haven’t already seen this season: Flashes of good play on both sides of the ball, but too little and too inconsistently to really dent the other side in any meaningful way, concluding with a score that looks much closer than the game mostly felt.

The game started off downright pleasantly, as the Heels marched down the field entirely on the strength of their run game in a drive that ended in a 14-yard Anthony Ratliff-Williams scamper where he took the snap as a wildcat quarterback. Duke struck back quickly, though, when in 5 plays, Duke quarterback Daniel Jones hit receiver Chris Taylor, who made a man miss and then took it 52 yards to the house. This set the tone for the entire first half, where, by and large, neither team could stop the other from scoring. UNC had 7 drives in the first half, scoring 4 touchdowns, punting twice, and missing a field goal from 49 yards out. Duke, in their 7, scored 5 touchdowns, punted once, and missed a field goal from 27.

Chunk plays abounded. On the drive after Taylor’s reception, Michael Carter ran one into the end zone from 40 yards out, then Duke equalized with a 26-yard hookup between Jones and tight end Daniel Helm. A few long drives later that were capped with short touchdowns from both teams, Dazz Newsome outran the entire Duke defense on a jet sweep for an 84-yard score, UNC’s longest play of the season, to equalize the game at 28-28. Duke quickly answered with a 61-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper from Jones, who torched the Heels through the air and on the ground. This ended the half, with Duke up 35-28.

The second half, though it always didn’t feel like it, was much more subdued. Duke continued to move the ball, but the UNC defense started finding ways to make big plays at the right time: Duke’s first three drives of the second half ended in a blocked field goal and two forced fumbles recovered by the Heels. The UNC offense, however, did nothing with the opportunities, not gaining a first down the entire 3rd quarter, and the defense eventually broke down and allowed Duke a two-touchdown lead after another big Jones run led to a two-yard scoring rush from Duke’s backup quarterback.

UNC couldn’t get offense going in the second half until it was too late, and even while the defense started forcing Duke to punt, UNC didn’t put a real drive together until there were about 5 minutes left in the game, scoring on a nicely placed pass from Nathan Elliott to Thomas Jackson with 75 seconds remaining. Duke recovered the ensuing onside kick, and though UNC, through good defense and 3 timeouts got the ball back at their 20 with 53 seconds to go, marching downfield with no timeouts left proved to be too tall a task for the UNC offense. A Hail Mary from Cade Fortin from the Duke 40-yard line was knocked to the ground, and Duke took the game, 42-35.

UNC’s ground game was about the only thing consistently working for the offense, though it started to get stemmed in the second half as the defense gave no mind to the threat of Elliott keeping on read-option plays. The team rushed for a staggering 315 yards, with Michael Carter leading the way on 18 carries for 184 yards. Dazz Newsome’s 84-yard dash was his only carry of the day, and Antonio Williams and Jordon Brown did some good work as well, toting a combined 12 times for 51 yards. Elliott was his usual self, taking care of the ball but not doing much more than that, finishing with a line of 27/41 for 221 yards and the scoring pass to Jackson. On the other side, Duke had their way with the UNC defense in all aspects, rushing for 268 yards (Jones led the way with 207 yards on 15 carries, more than he’d gained all season prior to this game) and slicing apart the secondary to the tune of 31/54 for 361 yards and 3 scores, a line that could have been even bigger if not for several drops from the Duke receivers.

With two games left, and one against a ranked State team, UNC will likely be looking at its last realistic opportunity for a win this season against Western Carolina next week. Meanwhile, questions surround the program’s future, both immediate and looking a little further ahead. Can Fedora stave some of them off by taking care of business against an FCS team? We’ll see.

UNC will host the Western Carolina Catamounts next Saturday at 3:00 PM Eastern.