CHAPEL HILL—After facing near certain defeat multiple times Saturday afternoon, Duke somehow found itself in prime position to steal a road win from North Carolina with just 18 seconds left.
Trailing by three points with the ball on the Tar Heel 2-yard line, the Blue Devils had the chance at multiple tries to score the go-ahead touchdown or, at worst, set up a game-tying chip shot field goal.
But on first-and-goal, Duke reached too deep into its bag of tricks, calling a jump throw from running back Deon Jackson, which was intercepted by North Carolina’s Chazz Surratt. The turnover iced the victory for the Tar Heels in front of a raucous Kenan Memorial Stadium crowd, with North Carolina taking control of the Victory Bell for the first time since 2015 with the unlikely 20-17 win.
“We called a little jump pass there at the end that we’ve used sparingly before,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We’ve had it really oiled up and ready for about the last three weeks. It didn’t work. No mystery, it just didn’t work.”
The play call left many scratching their heads: why would the Blue Devils rely on the arm and decision making of a running back with one prior career passing attempt on the biggest play of the season?
But for Cutcliffe, it was not a play call out of left field: the jump throw has been a part of Duke’s repertoire for years, as he pointed to a 2017 touchdown on a jump throw from then-Blue Devil running back Shaun Wilson as evidence of the play’s success.
“We’ve run it before, we ran it against Georgia Tech in 2017,” Cutcliffe said. “So, if he’s covered, he’s covered, you’re trying to throw it out the back of the end zone. It looked like somebody got to Deon’s feet and it just didn’t work.”
Duke quarterback Quentin Harris, who handed it off to Jackson on the interception after orchestrating a 92-yard drive downfield, similarly defended the decision to call the jump throw.
"I definitely feel for Deon because I have been in situations where I have thrown picks in crucial situations as well," Harris said. "But I definitely didn’t second guess the play call. I thought it was a good play call, it has been a good play for us in the past—it just went awry on this particular occasion and I give them credit for defending it as well."
Duke found itself in position to potentially score the game-winning touchdown thanks to a series of Tar Heel miscues and fortunate officiating calls.
On a pivotal fourth-and-4 with three minutes remaining, North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell delivered a strike to Dazz Newsome, seemingly putting the game away for the Tar Heels (4-4, 3-2 in the ACC). But running back Javonte Williams lost a fumble on the next play, giving the Blue Devils a chance to mount a go-ahead drive trailing by three.
On a fourth-and-3 with the game on the line, Harris found Noah Gray for an 18-yard gain, keeping Duke's hopes alive. A pass interference penalty pushed the Blue Devils well into North Carolina territory. Duke (4-4, 2-3) faced a fourth-and-inches from the Tar Heel 32-yard line, with a crucial facemask gifting the Blue Devils a first down inside the North Carolina 20-yard line, before the fateful Jackson interception killed the late Duke rally.
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“It’s definitely tough to drive the length of the field and have it end like that,” Harris said. “It’s going to sting a little bit.”
Facing a 14-3 halftime deficit and struggling to move the ball all afternoon, Duke miraculously flipped the script in the third quarter, nearly pulling off the 11-point comeback. Jackson ignited the Blue Devil attack, accounting for 57 yards on a Duke scoring drive that ended with an 11-yard Scott Bracey touchdown reception.
The Blue Devil defense responded to the life shown by its offense, coming up with one of the most pivotal plays of the afternoon on the first play of North Carolina’s next possession. Duke defensive end Victor Dimukeje batted a scrambling Howell’s pass into the air, with cornerback Jalen Alexander coming down with the interception, setting up the Blue Devils at the North Carolina 7-yard line.
Duke would not let the golden opportunity go to waste, as Harris found the right edge on a keeper for a touchdown, putting the Blue Devils ahead 17-14, completing a 20-second, 14-point swing in Duke’s favor.
“[After the turnover, I felt] a rush of adrenaline because I was on the bench with some of the offensive guys,” Harris said. “To see the defense doing a great job of making a turnover and give us a chance to fight back to tie the game or take the lead, I was really proud of their effort."
Duke will have two weeks to rest and reflect on its frustrating loss, next returning to action Nov. 9, when No. 9 Notre Dame will travel to Durham for a nonconference matchup.