All it took was a perfect strike to send the Blue Devils bowling for the first time since 1994. Duke gained bowl eligibility by defeating arch-rival North Carolina in dramatic fashion Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, prompting the fans to storm the field as the clock displayed 0:00.
After seeing Tar Heels take a 30-26 lead with around three minutes to play, the Blue Devils’ storybook ending looked as though it might not come to fruition. Quarterback Sean Renfree, however, refused to let that happen. Conducting arguably the best drive of his career, Renfree heroically led the team down field and connected with sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder for the game-winning touchdown on a fourth down with 13 seconds left in the game to give Duke a 33-30 win against North Carolina.
“The main thing that was going through my head was just hold on to the ball,” Crowder said. “When I realized I had it, I just wanted to get to the sideline and celebrate with my team.”
Having the lead for a majority of the contest, Duke (6-2, 3-1 in the ACC) seemingly lost its control of the game late. In the fourth quarter, North Carolina stormed back from a 14-point deficit with its second-straight scoring drive, going 75 yards in 10 plays to pull within three.
Soon after that, the Tar Heels regained possession, and on the wildest play of the night, quarterback Bryn Renner hit an open Erik Highsmith, who fumbled at Duke’s 22-yard line. Blue Devil cornerback Ross Crockell had an opportunity to jump on the loose ball but was unable to do so. The ball squirted forward toward the Duke end zone, where sophomore running back Giovani Bernard scooped up the fumble and scored from four yards out, giving the Tar Heels a 30-26 lead with 3:12 remaining.
“It just shows the kind of team we are,” senior wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “Old Duke teams would have just laid down [after North Carolina took the lead].”
2012/10/20 FB vs. UNC - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle
The epic conclusion to the Tobacco Road rivalry was matched by an equally stellar atmosphere. With a raucous crowd of 33,941 on hand at Wallace Wade Stadium, the 2012 battle for the Victory Bell saw North Carolina (5-3, 2-2) move the ball quickly on its opening possession. A 39-yard screen pass to Bernard led to a 30-yard field goal for the Tar Heels to give them the early lead.
Duke answered by making a statement on its opening possession with a methodical drive down the field. From the onset of the contest, the Blue Devil offense was predicated on the running game, which the Tar Heels’ 4-2-5 defense was gashed by much of the night. Led by running backs Josh Snead, Jela Duncan and Juwan Thompson, Duke’s ground attack accounted for 234 yards on the night, marking the most rushing yards ever by a David Cutcliffe-coached Duke team and the most rushing yards given up the Tar Heel defense all year.
“We thought we had a chance to run the football,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Our offensive line believed that we could, and they came off the field and told us, ‘We can get this done.’ We didn’t run the ball very well at any time against Virginia Tech…. This is what we had dreamed, hoped and envisioned.”
Sophomore quarterback Anthony Boone capped off the Blue Devils’ first drive with a three-yard touchdown run to give the Duke its first lead of the night at 7-3. Extending the Blue Devils’ lead to 10, freshman kicker Ross Martin connected on field goals from 35 yards and 30 yards, respectively.
Bernard—who finished 211 all-purpose yards on the night—struck again for North Carolina, breaking loose for another big run into Duke territory. A pass interference call on defensive back Tony Foster put the Blue Devil defense in a more vulnerable situation. Despite the adversity, the unit did what it had to for much of the game—bend, but not break, forcing the Tar Heels to settle for a 23-yard field goal.
In addition to establishing the running game, Duke’s offensive line gave Renfree adequate protection the entire game, allowing the redshirt senior signal caller to finish with 276 yards. Vernon was on the receiving end six times for 124 yards, several of which came on clutch third-down conversions.
“The offensive line did a phenomenal job giving us protection against a very good front seven,” Renfree said.
Narrowly avoiding costly turnovers on offense, the Blue Devils leaned on the running game as the first half drew to a close. Duncan’s two-yard touchdown run up the middle extended the Duke lead to 20-6 at halftime.
To start the second half, the Blue Devil defense came up big again. The secondary, in particular, played perhaps its best game of the season by shutting down North Carolina’s big and talented receiving corps. Consequently, the Tar Heels could only muster three points on their first possession of the second half through a 28-yard field goal by kicker Casey Barth to make the score 20-9.
Momentum quickly shifted though in the final quarter of play with Duke clinging to a 23-9 advantage. Opting to fake a punt on a fourth-and-one, Duke was unable to keep its drive alive to start the fourth quarter. The questionable decision almost cost the Blue Devils the game.
“I helped [North Carolina] a little bit with the decision to fake the punt, so I felt on the hook the whole time after that,” Cutcliffe said. “Not because it did not work, it just wasn’t the right time to do it.”
Taking over at midfield, North Carolina’s offense found a new rhythm. Renner found a wide-open Eric Ebron for a 34-yard gain to move inside the Blue Devils’ 10-yard line. A few plays later, Bernard leaped into the end zone, cutting Duke’s lead to 23-16 with around 13 minutes to play.
Martin’s fourth field goal of the contest, a 43-yarder, extended Duke’s lead to 26-16 with 9:22 remaining. The Blue Devils’ lead quickly disappeared though. Rallying back, the Tar Heels seemed poised to steal the game after their wild go-ahead touchdown by Bernard in the closing minutes of the game.
Instead of the back-breaking play leading to Duke’s undoing, the Blue Devils resiliently answered by performing one of the program’s most memorable game-winning drives, giving Duke its first victory over North Carolina since 2003 and its second win in the last 22 Victory Bell matchups.
“It’s impossible for me to describe,” Renfree said. “There’s been so many frustrating times in my career here… for us to come together as a team like this and do something special, I’m just lucky to be a part of this.”
The historic feat prompted students to storm the field in celebration of new heights for the Duke program.
“You couldn’t write a better story,” Vernon said.