On a night when the Blue Devils ran for more than 230 yards, it was only fitting that junior running back Shaun Wilson and injured teammate Jela Duncan were the ones riding the Victory Bell into the night.
The raucous celebration means Duke’s two-game losing streak to its Tobacco Road rival is over now, and more importantly, so is its three-game skid this season.
After allowing a combined 111 points to the Tar Heels in their last two matchups, the Blue Devils fell behind No. 15 North Carolina 14-0 Thursday evening at Wallace Wade Stadium. But Duke picked itself up off the mat and finally got a few second-half breaks, tying the game at 21 before halftime then going ahead 28-24 on a two-yard jump pass from Daniel Jones to tight end Davis Koppenhaver with 2:10 left in the third quarter.
Led by their running game and a few key defensive stops, the Blue Devils then finally finished off a close second-half contest for the first time in more than a month. After a Tar Heel field goal, Duke held on for a 28-27 win by keeping North Carolina’s high-powered offense out of the end zone on its final seven possessions.
Alonzo Saxton II sealed the win with a late interception with about a minute left in the game—the Blue Devils’ second interception of the night. Duke then ran out the clock for its second home win against its rival in their last three matchups.
“After that interception on the last drive, I started tearing up,” said redshirt senior defensive tackle A.J. Wolf, the team’s only healthy captain. “The only time I’ve ever done that after a game was the Pinstripe Bowl [last year].”
Duncan is one of three redshirt senior captains who have gone down with season-ending injuries, and key seniors Anthony Nash and Breon Borders were also out Thursday. But the rest of the team rallied to make Senior Night even sweeter with the Class of 2017’s second win against the Tar Heels.
Duke has won three of its last five games against North Carolina despite getting outscored by 54 points during that span, earning another win as a double-digit underdog. And for the third time in five years, fans at Wallace Wade Stadium celebrated a landmark win by spilling onto the field.
“It was pretty emotional for me on the field to see the joy, the much-deserved joy in our players,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I saw DeVon Edwards, Jela, Thomas [Sirk] and Breon—they couldn’t have been happier as if they had played the game.”
Although the Tar Heels (7-3, 5-2 in the ACC) scored touchdowns on three of their first four possessions—junior quarterback Mitch Trubisky quickly racked up 200 yards and all three of his scores—Duke’s defense played its best half ofthe year after the break.
After a Deondre Singleton interception to start the third quarter, the Blue Devils held North Carolina to two field goals the rest of the half with the offense giving the unit plenty of time to rest on the sidelines. Duke controlled the ball for almost two-thirds of the game.
The Tar Heels elected to punt after crossing midfield with less than nine minutes left, but Duke chewed up almost seven minutes of clock to flip the field after starting from its own one-yard line. Jones finished with 334 total yards and three touchdowns as the Blue Devils (4-6, 1-5) went 10-of-17 on third downs, and junior running back Shaun Wilson had 107 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
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“We thought we could effectively run the ball, and we thought we would be put in position where we got the right down and distance,” Cutcliffe said. “We didn’t have very many third-and-longs, and when you do that, you have a good chance of keeping the football.”
Twice on the key fourth-quarter drive, Jones found sophomore T.J. Rahming on the edge for third-down conversions, including a conversion near midfield when Rahming caught a pass in the flat then eluded two North Carolina defenders with a spin move.
The Blue Devils had struggled previously with generating big plays downfield, but five players had catches of at least 15 yards as Duke sealed its first ACC win.
"Coach [Cutcliffe] said we needed a big play and I had to make a big play for our team,” Rahming said.
Duke will now travel to Pittsburgh next week as the Blue Devils look to reach a fifth straight bowl game. A 5-7 Duke team could qualify given its Academic Progress Rate score and the number of bowl games that cannot field 6-6 teams, making the team’s last two games after Thursday’s huge win even more meaningful.
“It shows us that these last few games, we’ve been close, we kept fighting and coming up a little bit short,” Jones said. “Coming out on top shows us what kind of fight, perseverance and persistence can do for us.”