CHAPEL HILL - The Victory Bell swung back and forth on its pendulum throughout Saturday's gridiron battle between Duke and North Carolina, flipping sides with every game-changing moment. Ultimately, the bell remained in Chapel Hill after UNC's 24-21 victory.
The momentum changed for good with under four minutes left in the contest, with the Blue Devils (1-10, 0-8 in the ACC) up, 21-17. The Tar Heels (5-5, 4-3) faced fourth-and-one at the Duke 31-yard line, and running back Ronnie McGill took a handoff to the right hash, where he met Duke safety Chris Davis and landed perilously close to the first-down marker. The referees brought in the chains and determined that McGill had gained a first down by the nose of the football.
"I don't want to talk too much about the refs, they do their job, just like everybody else did their job," said freshman linebacker Michael Brown, who had 14 tackles on the day. "McGill is a hard runner, and he kept driving his feet, and the refs said he got it, so he got it."
With a fresh set of downs, UNC marched toward the goal line, and McGill ended what he started, pounding it into the endzone and putting his squad up three for good. The junior tailback finished with 168 yards rushing on 28 carries, accounting for more than 40 percent of the Tar Heels' total offense.
After the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, Duke got the ball back on its own 35 with 1:38 to go. Although freshman Zack Asack had played quarterback the entire game, the Duke coaching staff decided to insert former starter Mike Schneider into the game to run the 2-minute drill. After completing his initial pass for eight yards to Ronnie Elliott, Schneider proceeded to throw his next pass into the hands of UNC linebacker Tommy Richardson, whose interception effectively ended the game.
Blue Devil head coach Ted Roof defended the team's decision to use Schneider, who had not started since Duke's loss to Wake Forest Oct. 29.
"Mike [Schneider] was our two-minute guy," Roof said. "Zack [Asack] has come along, but Mike is more comfortable on the practice field and has produced better in the two-minute."
Asack, who completed 10-of-26 passes for 155 yards and ran for Duke's first score, supported his teammate.
"I have all the faith in Mike Schneider," Asack said. "Every single time I got off the field he was always there, supporting me and helping me with my looks and stuff. He knows what's going on in that two-minute."
Although the Duke defense could not stop McGill at the end, the unit was responsible for keeping the Blue Devils close the whole game. Senior Phillip Alexander and junior Jeramy Edwards created early opportunities by forcing first-quarter fumbles, both recovered by Duke. Brown led the attack on the UNC backfield, contributing three tackles-for-loss and one of the team's five sacks. With his effort, Brown ended the season leading the Blue Devils, as well as all Division 1-A freshmen, with 92 tackles.
"It feels good on the inside, but there's always a greater goal," the linebacker said. "That's what we were going for today. But it definitely feels good to know that I can help out the team in that kind of way."
Down 17-14 at halftime, Brown and the defense shut down the opposing offense throughout the third quarter and into the fourth, waiting for the Blue Devil offense to break through. Beginning a drive with 13:42 to go in the game, Asack and his crew put together 14 plays for 62 yards, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line with just over seven minutes to play. Roof gambled and decided to go for the touchdown with backup tailback Re'quan Boyette, a smaller and quicker back replacing injured power runner Justin Boyle. Boyette was stuffed at the line of scrimmage and was unable to convert.
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But the defense held UNC to only one yard on the next three plays, forcing the Tar Heels to punt and handing the offense incredible field position at the opposition's 41-yard line. With six minutes to go, Asack completed his first pass to tight end Andy Roland down the right side for 17 yards. On the next snap, Duke ran a reverse but the offensive line collapsed quickly, forcing Asack to pitch the ball to tailback Ronnie Drummer instead of handing it off. Drummer made the play look designed and took it 24 yards for the touchdown, putting the Blue Devils up four with five minutes remaining.
Drummer's successive celebration drew a penalty, enabling UNC to begin their next drive-the game-winning drive-at their own 32 yard-line. In a game with six personal-foul penalties, Roof thought this one was damaging, but not the deciding factor of the game.
"Obviously that penalty, that was 15 yards of field position, which was a critical factor," Roof said. "That's the rule, it's interpreted different game by game, but I don't know what to tell you."
But the coach did know what to say about the pride he had in his players after such a close final game.
"I told them that I was proud of them, and I'm sorry that we didn't send the seniors out with a win," Roof said. "It's tough to empty your tank and come up short on the scoreboard. The way it happened was the last drive there. But I give North Carolina credit because they made plays when they needed to."