CHAPEL HILL—After losing starting quarterback Riley Leonard for an indefinite amount of time, the latest edition of the fight for the Victory Bell didn’t look like it would be much of a battle.
But what a battle it was.
Duke and No. 24 North Carolina faced off in the 110th edition of the rivalry matchup Saturday night at Kenan Memorial Stadium. While this one started out all Tar Heels, the Blue Devils fought their way back in the fourth quarter on back-to-back Jordan Waters touchdowns sandwiching a successful onside kick. Sixty minutes of regulation wasn’t enough to decide it, but in the end, it was the home team who came out on top 47-45.
"[I'm] extremely proud of my team, proud of how we fought, proud of how we competed, proud of how we battled," head coach Mike Elko said after the game.
Duke (6-4, 3-3 in the ACC) got the first overtime possession. It lost four yards on its first two downs, then was called for holding on third down. It made it up to North Carolina’s 32-yard line for the Todd Pelino field goal attempt, a 49-yard boot that he handled with ease. The Tar Heels, by comparison, got a first down and set up a first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. The Blue Devils’ prime red zone defense did what it does best: prevent touchdowns. North Carolina couldn’t do much of anything, but Noah Burnette made the 24-yard kick to keep his team in it. In the end, it was Drake Maye who got it done, running it in from five yards out. Duke was able to find the end zone, but couldn’t convert the 2-point conversion in the second overtime.
North Carolina had a three-point deficit to overcome and 41 seconds in regulation to do it in. The Tar Heels drove to the Blue Devils’ 25-yard line, and with three seconds left, lined up for the game-tying field goal. Burnette made the 43-yard kick, his fifth of the night. The rivalry was headed to overtime.
Duke got the ball back down 33-29 with 1:55 to play. It made it to the North Carolina (8-2, 4-2) 30-yard line, aided by an offsides call, before stalling out. It faced fourth-and-7 with 46 seconds remaining and in need of a touchdown. Somehow, someway, Jordan Moore found himself alone on the right side. Thirty yards, an easy throw-and-catch. Pelino drilled the extra point, and the Blue Devils were up 36-33 with 41 seconds on the clock.
After a near-pick and an offensive holding penalty, North Carolina, down 29-26, was at Duke’s 15-yard line with two chances to get into the end zone. It only needed one, as Bryson Nesbit made the grab falling onto his back to give his team back a lead that had evaporated nearly as quickly as it was built.
After Jordan Waters’ fourth-quarter rushing touchdown, Duke lined up to kick the ball off. That it did — just to itself. In their first onside kick since 2021 against North Carolina A&T, Peyton Jones recovered the ball for the Blue Devils, giving them possession on their own 46-yard line. However, after a holding penalty on left tackle Graham Barton, the Duke offense looked stumped once again. It fought its way from a first-and-20 to fourth-and-1, which Waters converted. He got the call again on the next play, finding the same lane around the left edge for the 23-yard scamper-and-score. With a successful 2-point attempt, the Blue Devils were back in front, 29-26.
The North Carolina offense took the field after a 7:35 stint on the sidelines. In a bout of deja vu, Maye and Devontez Walker connected on their second 43-yard completion of the night, flipping the field for the Tar Heels and putting them firmly in control of their own destiny.
It took 22:26 between Duke’s second touchdown in the second quarter and its third in the fourth. When the Blue Devils received the Tar Heels’ first punt of the day, they were down 26-14. The drive started with a Grayson Loftis sack. Then the freshman completed four straight passes with a Waters rush in between, and from North Carolina’s 13-yard line, Jordan Waters ran around the left side, cutting around the edge and into the end zone. The offense was moving again.
For 1:44 in the second quarter, Duke was in front. As soon as that lead got away from it off a Burnette field goal with 23 seconds left in the first half, it crept farther and farther out of reach. Burnette knocked another short kick through the uprights just more than halfway through the third quarter, and seconds into the fourth Omarion Hampton ran around the left side for a two-yard touchdown, the Tar Heels’ first since their opening drive.
"We felt like, down [in the red zone], it was going to be critical for us to hold them to field goals and thought we lost the game last year by not doing that," Elko said about his team's red-zone defense. Burnette attempted — and made — five field goals in regulation.
After the Blue Devils’ first touchdown in the second quarter, graduate kicker Charlie Ham booted the ball off. Tar Heel return man Tychaun Chapman muffed the catch, sticking his team at its own 1-yard line. Backed up in his own end zone, redshirt sophomore quarterback Drake Maye fired the ball directly into senior safety Jaylen Stinson’s waiting arms. Duke took over on North Carolina’s 14-yard line, and capitalized on the turnover quickly as Loftis ran the ball in himself. Fourteen unanswered points later, the Blue Devils had their first lead of the night — a position few thought they would be in at all given the early dominance from the home team.
With 2:11 left in the first half and a deficit for the first time all night, the Tar Heels responded with fervor. Maye connected with Walker for his second 40-yard catch, setting up a North Carolina first down at Duke’s 11-yard line. The Blue Devil defense, for the third time in the first half, held firm, limiting Maye and company to just three yards before the field-goal attempt. Although the Tar Heels then went into the break with the 16-14 lead, the energy in Kenan Stadium had shifted; Duke wouldn’t be steamrolled. It was there to play.
The Blue Devils were driving. Even after taking an early false start, Duke continued chipping away, rushing six times on the nine-play scoring drive. Loftis connected with Jordan Moore on a short pass that he ran with — literally. The junior receiver took the ball 21 yards. Two plays later, Loftis and Moore found each other again, this time for the 10-yard touchdown reception.
There wasn’t much the Blue Devils could do on either side of the ball for the majority of the first half. Maye was able to march his team down the field with ease, pulling apart the Duke secondary from his first possession. The Huntersville, N.C., native was lethal in the first 30 minutes, completing 11 of his 18 attempts for 180 yards, but registering just one total touchdown.
The Tar Heels stretched their legs first, escaping a potential opening three-and-out as Maye found Nesbit on third-and-4. Five plays later, Walker raced up the right sideline with graduate corner Al Blades Jr. on his back. Maye threaded the needle for the 43-yard play, setting up the Tar Heels for their first score of the day, a one-yard run around the left side.
Duke remains on the road, next traveling up to Charlottesville, Va., for a 3 p.m. Saturday matchup against Virginia.
"You get punched; you get up. You get knocked down; you get up again. You get knocked down; you get up again," said redshirt senior defensive tackle DeWayne Carter after the game. "There is no choice. There is no message. I think that's how we are trained as a team. That's our mentality."
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Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.