At moments, it looked as if the Victory Bell would be changing both hands and shades of blue.
But when the smoke cleared Saturday night in Durham, North Carolina came out on top 38-35 after landing the last punch in a heavyweight battle of fierce rivals. For the fourth-straight season, the Tar Heels rang the Victory Bell come game’s end, this time after a valiant effort from sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard and the Blue Devils in front of a capacity crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“We were there,” Duke head coach Mike Elko said after the game. “We were there and had a chance to win and we just didn’t make the play at the end to get it done.”
With time ticking down in Saturday’s rivalry thriller, freshman quarterback Drake Maye and North Carolina (6-1, 3-0 in the ACC) faced fourth-and-5 at the Duke 20-yard line. Backed up against the wall, Maye connected with junior receiver Josh Downs for the first down, keeping the Tar Heels’ hopes alive.
That hope ultimately wound up as much more. Two plays later, Maye found senior receiver Antoine Green near the pylon and just inches from the sideline for what appeared to be the go-ahead score with 16 seconds to play. After a long review, officials upheld the ruling and North Carolina walked out of Durham with the win.
“When two really good teams play each other, people are going to make plays,” Elko said. “We made ours. … They made theirs and won the game.”
Trailing 31-28 with the tides turning in their favor early in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils (4-3, 1-2) took over at their own 21-yard line with a chance to fully erase what had been a 10-point deficit just moments earlier.
It was an opportunity that Duke would not waste: On third-and-8 on the wrong side of midfield, Leonard found senior receiver Eli Pancol for 28 yards to keep the drive alive. Redshirt junior running back Jordan Waters finished off the drive on the very next play, dashing 38 yards to the end zone to put the Blue Devils on top 35-31.
Less than three minutes later, defensive end R.J. Oben came off the edge to hit Maye in the throwing motion. The ball hit the turf, junior captain DeWayne Carter recovered and—after a long review—the Blue Devils took over, seemingly cementing their upset win. But after penalties pushed Duke back and redshirt junior kicker Charlie Ham missed a 43-yard field goal with 2:09 to play, the Tar Heels had a shot.
“The final sequence of plays on offense just was a killer,” Elko said. “And pushed us back and turned that into a long field goal … Just got to figure out a way to be better at that situation.”
On the second play of the fourth quarter, junior tight end Nicky Dalmolin injected some life into Duke’s attack and the Wallace Wade crowd with a 30-yard grab. One play later, Leonard dropped a pass over the shoulder and into the hands of redshirt freshman receiver Sahmir Hagans in the corner of the end zone, cutting the Blue Devils’ deficit to 31-28.
A mere three plays later, North Carolina was punting the ball back to Duke with nearly a full quarter of football to be played. The Blue Devils’ comeback was very real.
“We have to stop questioning whether this team is going to respond,” Elko said. “This team is going to fight, they’re going to fight for four quarters, they continue to show it every single week. And so we went through a stretch where we didn’t play real well on offense, we didn’t play real well on defense, but nobody blinks.”
With a narrow 21-17 lead in hand, the Blue Devils opened the second half with the ball and a chance to extend their lead. The Tar Heels quickly turned that notion on its head, forcing a quick Duke punt and promptly marching 86 yards in under three minutes to retake the lead at 24-21 on sophomore running back Elijah Green’s one-yard run.
That sequence marked the beginning of the end for Duke, which fell behind 31-21 on Elijah Green’s second touchdown of the night just more than five minutes later.
After exiting a breakneck opening quarter with a 10-7 lead, the Tar Heels dealt the first defensive punch early in the second frame, forcing a Duke fourth down just three yards from the end zone and two yards from moving the chains. That stop seemed to change the complexity of the game, with North Carolina punting back to the Blue Devils in the aftermath.
Then and there, Duke sophomore quarterback Riley Leonard changed all of that in a flash: Facing second-and-24 after a Tar Heel sack, the Fairhope, Ala., native tucked the ball in and weaved his way through North Carolina’s defensive front before spying a wide patch of open field. Seventy-four yards later, Leonard was in the end zone and the Blue Devils were in the lead.
“We’ve shown a lot of fight this year and there’s nobody I’d rather go to war with than everybody in this locker room,” Leonard said.
Within a matter of moments, the back-and-forth nature of Saturday’s fireworks-filled affair was clear: On the first play from scrimmage, Maye aired one out along the right sideline, connecting with Antoine Green for a 53-yard gain. The Blue Devils stood tall, forcing the Tar Heels to settle for a 45-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
But Duke matched its visiting archrival in the early going, piecing together a methodical first drive led by Leonard and freshman running back Terry Moore. Eight plays and 75 yards after North Carolina took the early lead, the Blue Devils took it right back with Waters’ goal-line plunge.
Duke’s 7-3 advantage was temporary, as Maye found junior tight end Kamari Morales across the middle to retake the lead for North Carolina. After one quarter of action, neither team had walked away from a drive empty-handed.
“We hit some walls in the third quarter but but aside from that, I thought our offense executed exactly how we needed to all night to give us a chance, and I thought our defensive kids battled,” Elko said. “They battled against an extremely explosive, potent offense.”
With North Carolina down 14-10 and looking to answer Leonard’s breakaway score, the Blue Devils earned another big opportunity when Maye lost the ball in the pocket. Duke’s Shaka Heyward recovered, setting up a short field for Leonard and the offense, who delivered: Sophomore running back Jaquez Moore capped off the abbreviated scoring drive, putting Duke up 21-10 with less than two minutes remaining in the half.
That proved to be plenty of time for Maye, as the redshirt freshman engineered a lightning-fast touchdown drive to close out an impressive half under center. After finding sophomore running back Caleb Hood in a tight window for the four-yard score, Maye headed to the locker room with 231 total yards and a pair of passing touchdowns to his name.
With the win, North Carolina achieves bowl eligibility and remains atop the ACC Coastal Division. Duke, on the other hand, tallies its second-straight loss after falling in overtime one week prior at Georgia Tech.
Next up, the Blue Devils travel to Miami Oct. 22.
“I’m so proud of what they’re doing,” Elko said. “They’ve got to continue to do it to get us over the hump. There’s a handful of plays that we’re looking at every game.”
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.