CHAPEL HILL—Even if you couldn’t see the scoreboard, the frustrated jeers from the crowded Tar Heel student section would have clued you in to Duke men’s soccer’s all but inevitable win as the minutes on the clock ticked away.
In the Blue Devils’ first Tobacco Road rivalry game with crowded stands in almost two years and first win against North Carolina in as long, No. 12 Duke pulled off a stunning 3-0 victory over its sworn enemy at Dorrance Field, defeating the sixteenth-ranked Tar Heels by multiple points for the first time since the 1999 ACC Semifinals. While this type of decisive win against North Carolina was perhaps 22 years overdue, it wasn’t a surprise to the team, which is now 5-1 on the season and first in the ACC Coastal.
“We're just hungry. I mean this group is ambitious and excited and there's so much more that we can do,” head coach John Kerr said after the game.
That hunger was evident almost as soon as the Blue Devils (5-1-0, 2-0-0 in the ACC) hit the pitch. At the four-minute mark, junior forward Scotty Taylor deftly stole the ball from a North Carolina (4-2-1, 0-2-0 in the ACC) defender deep in the Tar Heels' own end and tapped the ball to freshman midfielder Shakur Mohammed. Mohammed then carried the ball into the box, had the ball stolen from him, recovered it a second later, then got a quick shot and goal, his first at Duke, to put the Blue Devils up by one less than five minutes into the first half.
Just over eight minutes later, Mohammed got the ball into the box again where he passed it to Taylor, who got a shot on goal that was saved by Tar Heel goalie Alec Smir. Luckily for Duke, sophomore defender Amir Daley was right there to bury the rebound, also the first goal of his career, and in the blink of an eye the Blue Devils had a 2-0 lead in under 13 minutes of playing time. Daley running up right in front of the North Carolina student section and crossing his arms in a power stance was just the icing on the cake.
Appearing to taunt the stands, Daley’s goal celebration was emblematic of the tension in the air only possible at a Tobacco Road rivalry game, and, as cheers and jeers erupted in equal measure from the overwhelmingly Carolina blue crowd all night, that tension was tangible on the field.
The Blue Devils played hard, aggressive and maybe even a little mean. By the end of the game they had amassed 20 fouls and four cards, including a red card on freshman Ruben Mesalles. North Carolina (4-2-1, 0-2 in the ACC) was right there with them, though, with 16 fouls of its own, and both teams had an edge of desperation to win such an emotional matchup.
“That's the nature of the game against Carolina, right? There's gonna be lots of fouls…. Some of them were dumb fouls and we tried to avoid the dumb fouls…but at times there were competitive fouls [where] we're trying to win the ball and the guys are going for it. You’ve got to give them credit for that,” Kerr said.
But overall, of the chipiness between Duke and the Tar Heels not only on the field but in the stands as well, Kerr simply said, “We thrived on it.”
If anyone was feeding on the antagonism of the night like a soccer-playing Audrey II, it was Taylor. While the forward wasn’t formally credited with any assists, he factored into all three goals, engineering the first, supplying the second and scoring the third, making the most of every one of the 50 minutes he played with intelligence and efficiency. His goal was the second of his career, and maybe there’s something in the Chapel Hill air, because his first was the game-winning goal from Duke’s last win against the Tar Heels in 2019.
“He seems to have really good days here at UNC. Growing up in Chapel Hill, he probably has some incentive there,” Kerr joked. “But he did a great job and he worked his tail off for us.”
As a whole, though, despite the rush of defeating their nemesis, the Blue Devils headed back to Durham with some work to do. North Carolina outshot Duke 17-4, though only six were on goal and many were unthreatening, and the Tar Heels truly dominated in the latter half of the first frame, with Duke goalie Eliot Hamill coming in clutch to carry the Blue Devils through that surge. While the high North Carolina shot count could be because of Duke’s unique but effective defensive style—the Blue Devils excel at one-on-one defending and blocking shots, especially in the box, and are comfortable, maybe too much so, with Hamill bailing them out of sticky situations—it’s still something that Duke won’t be able to get away with forever and will look to improve on in the future.
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Still, after going 4-10-3 last season, putting together their fifth win and fifth shutout of the season on such a crucial battleground is huge for the Blue Devils. While Duke pulled off an upset victory against then-No. 6 Virginia Tech last week, there still remained something unproven about this team. But after downing the Tar Heels so emphatically and becoming one of just six teams in the NCAA to let in one or fewer goals over the entire season so far, the Blue Devils have proven they mean business. Besting two ranked ACC foes back-to-back is no easy feat, but Duke did it.
The Blue Devils are not getting cocky, though. With another ACC matchup on the horizon at Syracuse next week, Duke is not too excited about the win over North Carolina, simply taking the season as it comes, growing and finding an identity along the way.
“We just want to keep moving on and moving in the right direction. This team has a lot of potential but it's just potential at the moment,” Kerr said. “We're really kind of trying to take [it] one game at a time.”