CHAPEL HILL—The Blue Devils had been searching for a spark since the start of the game. Although it controlled the tempo early on, Duke was unable to create separation for much of the contest.
Bryon Fields Jr. provided the energy.
The redshirt senior's interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter fueled the Blue Devils' 27-17 victory against North Carolina Saturday afternoon at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Timely play-making from the Duke defense was key to keeping the Blue Devils in the contest throughout, and they will keep the Victory Bell for the second straight year after head coach David Cutcliffe's 100th career win and the 500th win in program history.
“When you can get pressure on the quarterback, that helps cause turnovers," Fields said. "It was just a coincidence that it was me that happened to make that play—it could have been anybody on the defense. Guys are believing in each other, playing hard and we were able to make a huge play for the team.”
Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Daniel Jones led Duke down the field for a go-ahead touchdown drive, capped by a one-yard touchdown run from Shaun Wilson. With the Blue Devils in field-goal range just outside the red zone, Jones completed a pass to Johnathan Lloyd on 4th-and-5 to extend the drive.
On the ensuing Tar Heel possession, the Blue Devils got pressure on quarterback Chazz Surratt, who threw a desperate two-handed overhead pass into the arms of Fields.
"You want to talk about team defense—that came from pressure from our people up front," Cutcliffe said. "It came from rallying to the ball.... Here we are struggling to get it in the end zone on offense. The interception was great, but the pick six was even better."
Duke (4-0, 1-0 in the ACC) was dominant during the first 29 and a half minutes, outgaining the Tar Heels 221-76. But missed opportunities for the Blue Devil offense allowed North Carolina (1-3, 0-2) to stay in the game.
It seemed as though Duke was in position to break the game wide open with less than three minutes remaining in the second quarter. The Blue Devils were lurking in the red zone with a 10-3 lead, looking to make it a two-score contest.
But following a blocked Austin Parker field goal attempt and a two-play, 80-yard touchdown drive by the Tar Heels to end the half, the momentum had clearly shifted in favor of the home team.
The Blue Devils struck first in the second half with a field goal to break the 10-10 tie, but things looked dreary following a 56-yard touchdown run for Surratt on 3rd-and-6. Duke had been outstanding in third-down situations in the last two weeks, holding Baylor and Northwestern to a combined 2-for-22 in those situations. But the Duke defense parted on the play, giving Surratt an opening. The Blue Devils had to punt on their next three drives, and their defense responded with a stop each time, leaving the door open for the fourth-quarter comeback.
Surratt was sacked four times by the Blue Devils during the game, including two from redshirt senior Mike Ramsay.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
“That’s just the game of football. You are going to go down, things are going to happen, you just have to make big plays,” Ramsay said. “Just keep fighting. We knew that no matter what happens here or there it was going to be a four-quarter game. We knew we were going to have to come in here and fight. So we just stayed hungry and kept fighting.”
Jones seemed out of sync once again for most of the day. Following back-to-back 300-yard performances to start the season, Jones completed a mere 18 of his 34 attempts in the air.
But his teammates’ performances on the ground allowed the Blue Devils to stay in the contest. Duke rushed for more than 180 yards for the third consecutive season against North Carolina. The dazzling duo of Brittain Brown and Shaun Wilson continue to shred opposing defenses, with the pair combining for nearly 150 yards and Wilson's crucial late score.
After allowing three long touchdown passes against Baylor last weekend and another four plays for more than 35 yards against North Carolina, it seems there is still plenty of room for improvement from Duke. If the Blue Devils want to beat high-quality conference teams going forward, limiting big plays and containing opponents' passing games will be key.
“We believe in our defense. We believe we can create turnovers, pressure the quarterback and pressure receivers on the outside,” Fields said. “We’ve got people flying around making plays, playing with a lot of energy, and that can definitely help you win games if you limit mistakes.”
That will start with a Friday night showdown against Miami at Wallace Wade Stadium, where Duke will look to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 1994.