Column: Duke football's last-second loss to North Carolina was college football at its dramatic finest

Duke and North Carolina put on a show Saturday in Durham, but the Tar Heels came out on top.
Duke and North Carolina put on a show Saturday in Durham, but the Tar Heels came out on top.

Even on an average night, college football inspires the full spectrum of emotions. Saturday was no average night, not with the show that Duke and North Carolina put on. 

On a night that featured 1,078 total yards of offense, 56 first downs and enough momentum swings to make you dizzy, the Tar Heels outlasted the Blue Devils 38-35 to seize control of the ACC Coastal Division and snatch the Victory Bell for the fourth year running. After consecutive touchdown marches early in the final period, as well as a DeWayne Carter fumble recovery on a strip sack of Drake Maye, Duke seemingly had this one on ice. 

But, despite having multiple chances down the stretch, the Blue Devils were unable to seal it. So is life in college football, in which the highest of highs are pitted against the lowest of lows—week to week, game to game and drive to drive. 

There was the illegal shift penalty that negated Jordan Waters’ first-down scamper with 2:32 in the fourth quarter. Then there was the chop block on Waters and right tackle Andre Harris, wiping away quarterback Riley Leonard’s picturesque strike to Jalon Calhoun in the left corner of the end zone, a score that would have made it a two-possession contest. There was the field goal that sailed wide-right off the foot of Charlie Ham, a kick that would not have assured victory but would have made overtime the worst-case scenario for Duke.

Once Ham missed, the jubilation that had just enveloped the pro-Blue Devil contingent of Wallace Wade Stadium—a faction bolstered by Family Weekend—morphed into impending dread. Duke had a shot to shut the door on its fiercest rival and snap a losing streak against the Tar Heels that began with the jump-pass debacle in 2019. When it left the door ajar, the agony of that loss three years ago was somehow usurped via Maye, running for his life with Dorian Mausi and Darius Joiner giving chase, finding Antoine Green in the right corner of the end zone with a mere 16 seconds left. 

Four tries, four losses to North Carolina. Add in the manner in which the Tar Heels ended Mike Krzyzewski’s career in April, and the best rivalry in sports is markedly lopsided as of this moment.

When Green reeled in the pinpoint dart from his signal caller, the North Carolina segment of the full 40,004 in attendance erupted with joy, a stark contrast from the utter shock that consumed the Duke faithful. That juxtaposition defines college football, no matter the setting. It was not quite the goalpost-commandeering party that went on inside Neyland Stadium after Tennessee ended 15 years of misery against Alabama, but it was still raw, unadulterated drama, the hallmark of a sport that owns a day of the week.

For good measure, and because this is college football, angst over the officiating reigned. Elko was mostly measured in his postgame comments, agreeing with the illegal shift call and referring to the chop block as a “bang-bang play.” When asked what he saw on Leonard’s penultimate throw to Calhoun, though, the 45-year-old was blunt, saying, “pass interference.”

In all honesty, the roughing the passer call against Carter early in the third quarter, on a seemingly routine sack of Maye, should get much of the attention. In college and the NFL, roughing the passer penalties have gone from controversial to borderline absurd, and this was the latest example. Quarterbacks are football players, too, and Duke’s redshirt junior defensive tackle even claimed rolling was “the best thing to do” to avoid putting his weight on Maye. 

Officials do not determine the final outcome, but those four sequences are part of the story, adding insult to injury for Elko and company.  

If on Sept. 1, the day before the season began, you had told me that Duke would start 4-3, I would have been extremely impressed. After all, despite his reluctance to say so, Elko was faced with the daunting task of rebuilding an operation with just two ACC wins since the aforementioned jump-pass. Make no mistake, there was experienced talent on the roster in the form of Carter, Calhoun, linebacker Shaka Heyward and center Jacob Monk. Yet in year one, with new systems in place, patience was needed.

Now that the Blue Devils are 4-3, I am still impressed with the program’s progress. But once you add chapters, the book itself does not read like a New York Times bestseller. Three tight losses (by eight to Kansas, by three to Georgia Tech in overtime and by three to North Carolina) could each have flipped the other way if not for poor tackling against the Jayhawks, stale offensive play-calling against the Yellow Jackets and one play flipping in Duke’s direction Saturday. Elko acknowledged that Saturday, saying, “the win-loss column isn’t going where it needs to go.” 

It is a difficult balancing act, one that our Sasha Richie accurately deemed a Catch-22: The macro view that deems the Blue Devils a frontrunner for most improved team in the conference, along with the micro view that begs you to question whether they could have achieved even more to this point.

At the end of the day, a pair of reactions tell the whole story. After allowing the winning touchdown to Green, Duke cornerback Joshua Pickett had both hands on his helmet, while Will Hardy had his right index finger pointed towards the sky after clinching the North Carolina win with a diving interception of Leonard.

So is life in the wackiest sport of them all.

Max Rego profile
Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.


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