CHAPEL HILL—For a bit there, it looked like Duke could compete with North Carolina.
The game remained scoreless as the first quarter was coming to an end, with the Blue Devils surprisingly keeping the Tar Heel offense at bay. Then North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell found running back Ty Chandler with a strike near midfield, and Chandler zigged and zagged his way through the Duke defense for a 75-yard touchdown.
Six plays into the ensuing Blue Devil possession, the Tar Heels strip-sacked Duke quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, returned it 63 yards the other way to take a 14-0 lead, and that was that. The Blue Devils never came within two scores of their Tobacco Road rivals, with North Carolina eventually coming out on top 38-7 Saturday to keep the Victory Bell for a third consecutive season.
“Obviously, I think everybody in that locker room is disappointed and anybody that's a Duke fan and Duke football fan, certainly there's a lot of disappointment,” head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Cutcliffe’s right—the Blue Devils should be able to truly compete with the Tar Heels year in and year out, and this kind of a loss to your rival is in no way acceptable for the program. However, that doesn’t mean there weren’t positive aspects of Saturday’s contest.
Up until the opening 75-yard score, Duke had limited North Carolina to just 45 yards of total offense on 13 plays. In the third quarter, the Blue Devils held the Tar Heels to nine yards of total offense on 14 plays, an impressive defensive effort that kept Duke within striking distance throughout the second half.
But similarly to the two-score sequence earlier in the contest, North Carolina soon found the end zone, with a Chandler 14-yard run and a 63-yard connection between Howell and star receiver Josh Downs in the fourth quarter clinching the Tar Heel win. Still, it was easy to tell the difference between this year’s rivalry matchup and last year’s embarrassment in Durham, when the Blue Devils seemingly gave up halfway through.
This time around, Duke showed for certain stretches that it belonged on the same field as North Carolina. Those stretches eventually ended, and the Tar Heels’ talent won out, but it was certainly a step up from the 2020 campaign.
“A year ago things got really hard,” Cutcliffe said. “It was just an outlier, 100 percent of an outlier year. Our guys are locked in. I think they understand the importance of taking it one week at a time, literally one day at a time. This team has bought into improvement, they've bought into Tuesday being every bit as important as actually Saturday.”
At the same time, though, struggling to perform consistently across the entire 60 minutes is quickly becoming a theme for this year’s Duke team. Even the Blue Devils’ wins this season have often looked like a tale of two halves. Against Northwestern, Duke went into halftime ahead 30-7 before being outscored 16-0 across the final 30 minutes. And against Kansas, the Blue Devils trailed 24-21 at the break before pulling away down the stretch.
Duke can get away with competing for half the game against the Northwesterns (at least this year’s version) and Kansases (every year) of the world, but that’s simply not going to cut it if it wants to return to being a contender in the ACC.
“Consistency,” captain DeWayne Carter said of what the Blue Devil defense needs to do to prevent big plays. “Because the good teams, they can play defense, like you said, for 30 minutes. But the great teams do every little thing right, everything correct.”
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The Blue Devils will get their first chance at doing exactly that next Saturday against a Georgia Tech squad that dominated North Carolina last Saturday but fell on the losing end of a blowout loss to Pittsburgh this past weekend.
“You do learn from these circumstances—you better learn when you lose, because there's nothing else good about it,” Cutcliffe said. “But at the same time, I shouldn't say nothing else, because you get better. When you play the game of football, you have a chance to get better every time you go out there and play, and I expect us to be a much better football team tomorrow and Tuesday and Wednesday, headed toward next Saturday.”