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Extra point: Costly mistakes the difference in Duke football's close loss to North Carolina

Running back Jordan Waters rushed for two touchdowns against North Carolina.
Running back Jordan Waters rushed for two touchdowns against North Carolina.

Duke football lost a heartbreaker against rival North Carolina at home Saturday, 38-35. The Blue Zone is here to provide three key takeaways, stats and a look ahead following the Blue Devils’ defeat:

Three key takeaways

1. Key mistakes in the second half

Duke’s first-half offense was much better than expected, but several errors in the final 30 minutes resulted in its downfall. The Blue Devils’ first three second-half drives consisted of a punt following an illegal blocking penalty, another punt and a turnover on downs following a failed toss play to redshirt junior running back Jordan Waters. These errors erased a four-point halftime advantage for Duke, especially as the Tar Heels rallied to score two unanswered touchdowns to earn a 31-28 lead in the fourth quarter. After North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye lost his second fumble of the night with 7:32 left in the game, the Blue Devils drove to the Tar Heels’ 11-yard line, but committed illegal shift and chop block penalties to force a 43-yard field goal that kicker Charlie Ham missed. On North Carolina’s final offensive drive, redshirt senior linebacker Shaka Heyward committed a 15-yard facemask penalty, aiding Maye and the Tar Heels in scoring the game-winning touchdown.

2. Losing two-minute drills on defense

Duke’s normally solid defense allowed a season-high 38 points Saturday night, and a significant fraction of the final score was yielded in the final two minutes of both halves. Following a two-yard touchdown by sophomore running back Jaquez Moore to take a 21-10 lead with 1:38 remaining in the second quarter, Maye remained unfazed, driving the Tar Heels 75 yards in nine plays and tossing a touchdown to running back Caleb Hood to cut their deficit to four entering halftime. After Ham’s missed kick, Maye once again stepped up to the pressure with 2:09 on the clock, throwing the game-winning touchdown to wideout Antoine Green on a drive that garnered 74 yards in nine plays. In a game where the Blue Devils only lost by three points, Duke’s failures on defense in crunch time were a major factor.

3. Controversial calls and no-calls

While the Blue Devils’ loss Saturday was theirs to own, several contentious rulings by the referee crew may have swung the game out of Duke’s favor. On North Carolina’s opening drive of the third quarter, redshirt junior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter was called for a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on a potential sack on Maye. Five plays later, the Tar Heels would score a touchdown to go up 24-21. Possibly the largest swing of the game occurred after the Blue Devils took a 35-31 lead with 10:12 left in the game. On the ensuing kickoff, the ball was mishandled by North Carolina on the field before being downed in the endzone, which arguably warranted a safety that would’ve put Duke up six points and given it the ball. On Green’s game-winning touchdown catch, replay showed a potential missed offensive pass interference call against the Blue Devils’ sophomore cornerback Joshua Pickett, as well as an inbounds ruling for Green that could have gone in either direction. Lastly, on Duke’s final desperation drive, senior wideout Jalon Calhoun was pulled down by Tar Heel linebacker Cedric Gray, but no flag for pass interference was thrown. While head coach Mike Elko’s squad missed key opportunities to capitalize on North Carolina’s errors, these controversial decisions by the officiating crew possibly closed the door on a thrilling win for the Blue Devils.

Three key stats

1. 297 rushing yards

Despite the crushing loss to their hated rival, the Blue Devils’ rushing dominance was on full display Saturday night. Duke racked up nearly 300 yards on the ground, averaged 7.1 yards per carry and garnered four running touchdowns. The best of these occurred with less than six minutes left in the second quarter, with dual-threat quarterback Riley Leonard facing a second-and-24 at the Blue Devils’ 26-yard-line after taking an egregious 14-yard sack on the previous down. On the play, the sophomore ran for what seemed to be a solid 10-yard play, but expert blocking by Duke’s offensive linemen led to a 74-yard thrilling score by Leonard to give the Blue Devils a 14-10 lead. Leonard alone finished with 130 yards on just 14 attempts, shattering his then-career-high 66 yards against North Carolina A&T Sept. 17. As has been the case for the entire season, it remains abundantly clear that Duke must focus on running the football well in order to stay alive in games, which was on full display in spite of the team’s loss.

2. 21 unanswered points

From the final two minutes of the first half to the end of the third quarter, Duke was outscored 21-0 by North Carolina. Unsatisfactory offense and porous defense by the Blue Devils were the main culprits, as the team was outgained 235 to 56 yards during this stretch. On Duke’s first three drives of the second half, the team averaged just three yards per play and rushed just three times for a net loss of one yard. The Blue Devils stormed back in the fourth quarter, but in a multifaceted, close loss, the ineffectiveness of Elko’s squad coming out of halftime proved costly.

3. 40,004 fans

If one had arrived at Krzyzewskiville Saturday night, unaware of the date and only seeing the Duke and North Carolina blues in the massive crowd, they would have been forgiven for thinking it was a basketball game. Indeed, Wallace Wade Stadium’s capacity of 40,004 was listed at full for the first time this season thanks to undergraduate Family Weekend, a North Carolina fanbase that traveled in numbers and, of course, a reinvigorated Duke football program. Cheers, outrage and excitement were heard on every play thanks to the mix of Blue Devil and Tar Heel fans in attendance. While the outcome certainly was not ideal for the former, the sheer turnout alone proves that Elko’s culture change has extended across the Duke community and has earned respect from the Blue Devils’ archrival throughout the Research Triangle.

Looking forward

Following two straight losses to ACC opponents, Duke looks to rebound this coming Saturday in Miami as it takes on the Hurricanes. The Blue Devils look to improve to 5-3 on the year and 2-2 in conference play with a win, but the team’s 1-3 record in one-score games so far sticks out like a sore thumb. The “Elko Era” has exceeded expectations of many observers so far, but Duke must meet its own expectations going forward through a dominant ground game, a reduction in costly mistakes and a determination to finish off opponents in close games.

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