CHAPEL HILL—The Blue Devils kicked, screamed, scratched and clawed all afternoon, but the Tar Heel talent was too much.
Duke took on North Carolina Saturday, and it was all Carolina blue. The contest ended in a 38-7 Duke loss in Kenan Memorial Stadium behind a stonewall defensive performance from North Carolina and enough production from quarterback Sam Howell to keep the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill.
“We have some good football that we played. But the inconsistencies, the penalties, the turnovers, the assignment issues that can happen at times, I have to own them. That’s all head coach,” Cutcliffe said. “When you have a disciplined football team it’s in everything that you do every day.”
The Blue Devils (3-2, 0-1 in the ACC) went into the locker room at halftime without points on the scoreboard, but the start of the second half proved that Duke hadn’t raised the white flag. Junior receiver Jalon Calhoun took a slant 80 yards thanks to a couple jukes and a big downfield block from senior receiver Jake Bobo.
The next drive, quarterback Gunnar Holmberg threw an interception off of a tipped pass, but the Blue Devils rallied back again to move the ball 60 yards before a questionable fourth down decision to bring backup quarterback Jordan Moore in for Holmberg led to a turnover on downs.
It looked like Duke was beginning to claw its way back into the game at the start of the fourth quarter, but a costly offsides call on fourth-and-one when center Jack Wohlabaugh did not snap the ball forced the Blue Devils to punt, and North Carolina (3-2, 2-2) followed it up with its first touchdown of the second half. Wohlabaugh did not practice this week, and traded time with Addison Penn Saturday.
"Jack's an experienced player. I wouldn't really think that was the issue at all," Cutcliffe said of not having him at practice, adding in that it's always ideal to have a complete week and he hopes Wohlabaugh is able to practice fully this week.
Halfway through the fourth quarter, North Carolina leading receiver Josh Downs poured on one more touchdown for good measure to make his final line 168 yards with eight receptions and seal the deal.
Time and time again, Duke continued to cowboy up and keep the game interesting, but the inability to get the big turnover or big score is of colossal concern at this point in the season.
The Blue Devil defense had its best game by a large margin, sacking Howell five times and quelling what is normally an extremely vertical and explosive offense—at least containing it more than what was expected before the game. Even the defensive backs, who have been a vulnerable part of Duke’s defense, harassed the North Carolina receivers all game and kept them and Howell out of sync.
“Our guys, we don’t have any quit in us," defensive captain DeWayne Carter said of the overall defensive performance and what needs to change for next week. "I say first off for me, is just be more consistent. We gotta finish drives, we gotta finish possessions and things of that nature. Our coaches put together a great plan to get after [Howell] and it was cool to see it work out.”
But the slip up to Downs late in the fourth quarter and the 75-yard touchdown in the first quarter are not things that happen on winning football teams.
Neither offense had the numbers early on that were to be expected considering the defensive struggles from both teams entering Saturday. North Carolina’s run-pass options lacked their normal efficacy, especially when Howell pulled the handoffs and looked for his favorite target in Downs.
But Duke did play North Carolina, and the Tar Heels still found ways to score.
At the end of the first quarter, Howell fired a dime on third down to a streaking Ty Chandler on the Duke sideline for a 75-yard run-and-catch to the house. Chandler’s touchdown marked a shift in the game and on the following drive, chaos ensued.
Holmberg reeled back to fire a pass and Kevin Hester Jr. smacked the ball out of the Blue Devil signal caller’s hand to force the fumble. Trey Morrison scooped the bouncing football and returned it untouched for six more Tar Heel points.
From Duke’s first drive, it looked like aggressive decision-making was going to be prevalent all afternoon. Cutcliffe wasted no time deciding to go for it on fourth-and-one from the North Carolina 43-yard line, but the aggressive mindset did not extend to play-calling.
The Blue Devil offense did not strike downfield as often as it has this year, and it struggled to turn promising drives into points. There was a noticeable increase in screen passes, though the Tar Heel defense smothered them all afternoon and that led to no plays inside the red zone for Duke.
“I think a big part of that was pass protection. We struggled in pass protection early on and we had some calls down the field that we just couldn't get off,” Cutcliffe said of the lack of a downfield passing game. “The other part of that is I didn’t think we separated very well in some of those so it forces you to hold the ball.”
Taking steps in the right direction is only enough for so long, and if Duke does want to make a run at a bowl game, it needs to put together a complete game, starting with Georgia Tech next Saturday.
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Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.