Everything that went right for five games went wrong. All the mental mistakes that disappeared returned. All the wins became one heartbreaking loss.
North Carolina was right there with No. 24 Duke, just a few plays short of capping a six-game winning streak and spurning the Blue Devils’ ACC Championship Game dreams. But, the costly mistakes — the kind the Tar Heels made throughout the first half of their season — reappeared in the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter to cost UNC its seventh victory.
An inopportune unsportsmanlike conduct penalty turned a promising drive into a disappointing field goal. A dropped interception turned a potential game-clinching play into a go-ahead Duke field goal. And, a missed block turned last-minute hope into a game-sealing interception, as the Blue Devils walked away from Kenan Stadium with a 27-25 win.
“It’s really frustrating. We beat ourselves. They played a great game and did a lot of great stuff, but we had some really untimely penalties, and that really hurt us,” senior James Hurst said. “It’s good to keep fighting and stay in the game, but you want some of those back.”
It’s difficult to look past center Russell Bodine’s unsportsmanlike conduct flag for the moment that swung the fate of the game. After going down 24-15 early in the second half, the Tar Heels rallied back and pulled within two points of Duke. Marquise Williams finally found rhythm late in the fourth quarter and marched UNC down inside Duke’s 10-yard line. The Tar Heels had converted two straight third downs, and they were facing a third-and-two to set up a goal-to-go scenario.
But, all that momentum stalled when Bodine shoved a Duke defender off the pile following a Khris Francis rush. The referee threw the flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, and UNC was placed in a third-and-17 situation. The Tar Heels had the chance to take a five-point lead on Duke, but they had to settle for a one-point margin following a Thomas Moore field goal.
“That killed it. We were down there, we wanted to go in and score,” Williams said. “I knew we were going to score, but that penalty kept us from doing it. We had to find a way just to get three points on the board.”
Both Williams and Hurst said after the game that they didn’t hear a whistle, noting Bodine was just playing to the whistle. But, the play was clearly dead when Bodine went for the extra activity.
UNC still held the lead and was in position to win the rivalry despite settling for a field goal. The Tar Heels held Duke to two short drives on its previous offensive series, and they were suddenly finding ways to pressure quarterback Anthony Boone.
On the fourth play of the ensuing drive, the type of clutch play UNC found in its previous five games presented itself. Boone underthrew a pass to Braxton Deaver, and Tre Boston was on the spot to intercept the ball. Only this time, the ball popped out of Boston’s hands and fell harmlessly as an incompletion. On the next snap, Boone completed a 29-yard pass to Jela Duncan into Tar Heel territory.
The UNC defense prevented any further damage by stopping the Blue Devils in the red zone, but Duke was able to hit a 27-yard go-ahead field goal and retake the lead.
The Tar Heels were inches away from a game-winning turnover, but Duke took the inches UNC left on the field and crafted them into the game-winning points.
“Missed opportunities. A lot of penalties. Just a lot of things went wrong for us today. The ball didn’t fall our way,” senior Kareem Martin said. “The missed opportunities were things you work on all the time … they just happened to be the difference in a close game.
“It’s tough, especially seeing what we’ve become as a team and the strides we’ve made throughout the season. To see us make simple mistakes is just kind of tough.”
The final missed opportunity that plagued UNC came on the final drive of the game. Despite a lack of explosive plays and poor clock management, the Tar Heels still had the ball in Duke territory with time to get into field goal range.
Williams dropped back and saw Quinshad Davis open down the middle of the field. But, on his blind side, Duke’s Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo beat James Hurst and was pressuring Williams. As Williams released the ball, DeWalt-Ondijo delivered a hit. The ball floated across the field and into the hands of DeVon Edwards with 13 ticks on the clock.
Duke ran its victory formation onto the field with the sound of the Victory Bell already ringing from the Blue Devil sideline.
“The last play, he’s going to hit him for a big gain, and he gets hit. So, I mean, we had what we wanted in the coverage and had the guy wide open,” coach Larry Fedora said. “We just — we didn’t make the play.”
All together, UNC committed nine penalties for 85 yards — three of which were on kick returns and put UNC behind a long field. The Tar Heels failed to convert their first eight third downs, while Duke made good on seven of its first 11 tries. UNC dropped three interceptions, lost the turnover battle 2-1, missed a 42-yard field goal and squandered a touchdown when freshman T.J. Logan let a long pass bounce out of his hands.
That a couple small plays beset UNC against a 10-win opponent shows how far the Tar Heels have come since starting 1-5. But, that they made the majority of the game’s mistakes shows that they never fully outgrew their first-half problems.
“It hurts to see us pretty much stick a thorn in our own sides,” Boston said. “It hurts because that’s how you win ball games, by not committing stupid penalties and by playing good ball. I just don’t believe we played to the best of our ability today — not the way we played the five other weeks.”