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5 observations and more from Duke football's first half against North Carolina

Duke and North Carolina delivered on the rivalry with an exciting first half.
Duke and North Carolina delivered on the rivalry with an exciting first half.

Saturday night’s rivalry game between Duke and North Carolina is off to a riveting start, with the two sides trading scores early on before the Blue Devils jumped out in front at the half. With 30 minutes to play and the Victory Bell on the line at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke leads 21-17.

Five observations:

Home turf: It has been a while since Duke has generated this much hype and, of course, a battle with North Carolina brought that to new heights Saturday. Scores of fans donning Duke blue filled Wallace Wade Stadium as they made their way from an exuberant tailgate. Plenty of Tar Heel fans showed up for good measure, but the crowd truly embodied the spirit of the Tobacco Road rivalry, and that has not always been the case in recent years. Duke had a real home to protect, and that home roared for the Blue Devils’ every advance. 

Gimme, gimme Moore: Redshirt junior running back Jaylen Coleman, Duke’s rushing leader, is missing his second-straight game, and that means it is once again up to the rest of the backfield to bear the load. Freshman Terry Moore answered the bell. On his first three touches alone, he surpassed his previous total career yardage of 39. These included catching a 15-yard pass then rushing for 14 for a pair of first downs on Duke’s first drive, in which redshirt junior Jordan Waters scored the game’s first touchdown. While the loss of Coleman certainly hurts, Moore stole the show in his absence.

This town ain’t big enough: Wallace Wade or the Wild West? Regardless, it’s home to a good old-fashioned duel. Both teams streamed up and down the field with relative ease and got plenty of chances at the end zone. When all was said and done in the half, the Blue Devils had three touchdowns and the Tar Heels had two touchdowns and a field goal. The teams delivered on the energetic atmosphere with energetic play, and the scoreboard displayed high numbers as a result.

Come what Maye: There’s really no denying how good Tar Heel quarterback Drake Maye is. The redshirt freshman leads almost all quarterback stats in the ACC and for good reason. In the first half, he threw for 178 yards on 12-for-19 passing, but that doesn’t capture the scope of how he led North Carolina’s offense. He executed eye-popping plays and almost always made the right decision. He even led the Tar Heels in rushing with 42 yards as he found a way to march down the field no matter what Duke threw at him. With under two minutes in the half, he cemented that performance with a 35-yard pass to put the Tar Heels in the red zone. A few plays later, he found freshman running back Caleb Hood for a touchdown. 

Critical mistakes: After sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard’s jaw dropping touchdown run, the Tar Heels still had just over five minutes to try to take back the lead before halftime. However, Maye fumbled the ball on the North Carolina 33-yard line and redshirt senior linebacker Shaka Heyward recovered it. Duke got another chance at a score, and sophomore running back Jaquez Moore eventually ran it in for the Blue Devils’ third touchdown of the night. The Tar Heels played an impressive game before, but that fumble proved critical to their eventual halftime deficit. 

By the numbers:

261 yards of total offense: Much was made of North Carolina’s defense leading up to the game. The unit entered the matchup ranked last in the ACC for total yards given up, and for as much as they have improved since their first few games of the season, the Tar Heels still gave up 122 yards in the first quarter alone and 261 through the first half.

106 yards rushing for Riley Leonard: The sophomore starter is always mobile, but when the air attack seemed stifled, he led the charge with his legs grabbing crucial yardage and leading the Blue Devils in rushing. Beyond his mad 74-yard dash for Duke’s second touchdown, he also grabbed multiple first downs and pushed through a floundering Tar Heel run defense. 

Five North Carolina penalties: The Blue Devils looked in control for most of the half, but they still got a heavy assist from the Tar Heels. North Carolina committed five total penalties for a total of 36 yards, which often helped Duke move up the field in crucial moments. 

A play that mattered

On their second-to-last true drive of the half, the Blue Devils made their way to their own 40-yard line quickly, but then Leonard got sacked on a first-and-10. Backs to the wall, staring down a second-and-24, Leonard couldn’t find a passing option, so he ran for it. And he ran all the way to the house. It looked like he might slide, but he broke through a swarm of Tar Heels and suddenly there was just grass between him and the end zone. The touchdown gave Duke a four-point lead and injected both the crowd and the team with an apparent surge of motivation. 


Sasha Richie | Sports Managing Editor

Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.

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