For most of the first half Saturday, it looked like both teams were destined for at least 50 points, and it was going to be the type of game that the last team with the ball would win.
North Carolina scored touchdowns on four of its first six possessions, running roughshod over the Blue Devil defense and using its speed to get to the outside. It was reminiscent of Duke's 54-45 loss at Pittsburgh two weeks ago when the Panthers never stopped scoring, or for senior linebacker Ben Humphreys, it reminded him of another game—the Tar Heels' 66-31 onslaught against Duke in Chapel Hill his freshman year.
But Duke's defense turned it around after the break to ensure that the Blue Devils remained unbeaten against their archrival since that afternoon three years ago. Duke held North Carolina without a first down for the entire third quarter, and the Tar Heels were scoreless in the second half of the Blue Devils' 42-35 victory until they finally found the end zone with 1:15 remaining in the game.
"After the butt-whooping we took my freshman year at UNC—that was my first career start and I remember every single play in that game, and I watch that film and it has motivated me every single game since that point," Humphreys said. "First career start, first career play on the field, they throw a flea-flicker and I slip and I’m on my butt, so I watched that over and over and over this week, I took it to heart and to reel off three straight against great North Carolina football teams is a great feeling."
Duke's defense needed every stop it got, because its offense stopped scoring as well after a wild, back-and-forth first half. The Blue Devils took a 35-28 lead into the locker room, but their offense was plagued by mistakes in the third quarter to keep the Tar Heels in the game.
North Carolina blocked a 40-yard field-goal attempt by Collin Wareham on Duke's first possession of the half, wide receiver Chris Taylor lost a fumble in Tar Heel territory on the next drive and quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked and lost a fumble to result in a third straight empty possession with the Blue Devils clinging to a seven-point lead.
Each time, Duke held North Carolina to a three-and-out and a punt.
"We had two fumbles and a blocked field goal in the third quarter and I’m sitting there thinking, like in baseball, that’s like dropping foul balls," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "You know what happens when you start dropping foul balls? They start getting home runs. The reason we were able to fight that off was the fight of our entire team."
At halftime, the Tar Heels had 272 rushing yards on 11.3 yards per carry, led by speedy sophomore Michael Carter with 122 yards. Wide receiver Dazz Newsome had also given North Carolina an 84-yard touchdown run.
Without redshirt junior All-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris, who was sidelined by an MCL injury he suffered last week at Miami and remains day-to-day, the Blue Devils were struggling to keep North Carolina's playmakers in front of them. Junior safety Dylan Singleton also suffered a season-ending broken ankle during the first half, forcing redshirt junior Jordan Hayes into action.
Hayes played a significant role last season due to other injuries in the defensive backfield before he has been relegated to the bench for much of this fall, but he stepped in effectively with five tackles, including one for a loss. Duke's leading tackler was reserve linebacker Brandon Hill, who filled in for Giles-Harris and brought Tar Heel ball-carriers down 10 times.
"I wasn’t playing much this season, but I came in and did what I had to do, and I thank my brothers for it," Hayes said. "The next man steps up, and we’ve been preaching about that the whole season."
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After the break, Duke forced North Carolina into five straight three-and-outs, and it did not allow a play of more than 20 yards for the entire second half. The Tar Heels finally marched down the field for a touchdown to trim the deficit to 42-35 with just 1:15 remaining and got a quick stop to get the ball back with a chance to tie it.
But Duke fittingly ended the game with one last stand, breaking up a Hail Mary attempt in the end zone as time expired before making a beeline for the Victory Bell, in the Blue Devils' possession for the third straight season.
"I made a joke before the game that they shouldn’t even roll the bell down onto the field because it’s too heavy to roll back up the tunnel," Humphreys said. "We executed what we needed to execute in the second half and tackled better in the second half, and I’m just so proud of these guys. It’s been an unbelievable season up to this point and we’re not done yet."