DURHAM -- Knowing the historic travails of Duke football, having watched the Blue Devils find innumerable, creative ways to stumble at the threshold of victory over the years, North Carolina’s flukish late go-ahead touchdown seemed typical.
Instead, the Devils fashioned a happily atypical ending to a 33-30 victory, banishing more unwelcome streaks and festering frustrations than any program should have to endure.
Yes, the result assured Duke its first non-losing record since 1994, so long ago none of its players were apt to remember. Yes, the Blue Devils’ sixth win made them bowl eligible for the first time since ’94, when they faced Wisconsin in the Hall of Fame Bowl. And, yes again, the victory was the first against the Tar Heels since 2003, and only the second in the last 23 meetings in what was once a heated, evenly matched rivalry.
Most important, however, was the affirmation provided by a final 14-play drive that culminated with Sean Renfree’s five-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder. Instead of falling victim to circumstance once again, Duke had mastered its own fate.
What’s more, with four games remaining in the season, the win kept the Blue Devils in contention for a berth in the ACC championship game.
So significant a triumph “was a long time coming,” said a pleased Conner Vernon, who embellished several of his career receiving records with six catches for 124 yards. “It’s been a long time since Duke was a thought in football.”
Fortune’s fickle hammer threatened to level Duke when, on first and 10 from his own 40, Tar Heel quarterback Bryn Renner, his team trailing by three points, lofted the ball 20 yards to Erik Highsmith behind the Blue Devil secondary.
The long-striding wide receiver looked free to roam, but was run down and stripped of the ball at Duke’s 22 by safety Jordon Byas. The ball bounced tantalizingly on the turf, squirting to and through the hands of cornerback Ross Cockrell.
A recovery of the fumble might have allowed the Devils to run out the clock. Instead Giovani Bernard, the Tar Heel running back who carried his team’s offense throughout, scooped the ball up at the two-yard-line and carried it into the end zone.
Suddenly the Tar Heels had the upper hand, and in a manner sure to stun and confound a Duke squad still shaking off the effects of its previous game. The Blue Devils had led 20-0 at Virginia Tech, only to yield 41 consecutive points in a decisive defeat.
Standing on the sidelines watching UNC go ahead, Renfree, a fifth-year quarterback, felt haunted by a familiar, unwelcome tune. “I was thinking, come on, can’t we get a break?”
The Devils had been in control for nearly 49 minutes, from shortly after the midpoint of the first quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium. For most of a pleasant October evening they were clearly the better team in a battle of opponents that entered the game with identical 5-2 records.
“It looked to me that they did whatever they wanted offensively, defensively, and on special teams,” said North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.
Duke outgained UNC in the air and on the ground. The Blue Devils racked up 234 yards rushing, most in David Cutcliffe’s five seasons at Durham and double their per-game average entering the contest (111.1).
Josh Snead (99), Jela Duncan (74), and Juwan Thompson (64) spearheaded the ground assault. Remarkably, each of Duke’s leading rushers gained more yardage in one night against the ACC’s third-best run defense than the Devils collectively managed in five entire games last season.
UNC’s Fedora preaches quick snaps and a blistering offensive pace. Yet it was Duke that ran 89 plays compared to 71 for the Tar Heels, buoyed by sure tackling, strong line play, and an efficient offense.
Key was the Blue Devils’ 50 percent conversion rate in 18 third-down situations – making good on three on the final drive -- compared to 4 of 15 for North Carolina.
Duke committed no turnovers. In fact, in a sign that perhaps the breaks had subtlely shifted in its favor, twice misplays by Carolina’s star middle linebacker, Kevin Reddick, negated possible picks.
In a similar vein, on the same night Maryland saw a potential winning field goal bounce off the left upright and fall short at home, the first of Ross Martin’s four field goals in four attempts hit the right upright at Wallace Wade and went through for Duke.
That all this took place before a nearly-full stadium added to the impact of the Renfree-Crowder connection with 13 seconds to go.
The timing of the contest made the outcome all the more satisfying for Cutcliffe and company.
Duke and North Carolina met to conclude most regular seasons since the middle of World War Two. Even when other games came later -- as happened most recently in 2009 – the Blue Devils and Tar Heels met in November.
Seven of the last eight clashes came on Thanksgiving weekend, when students were not likely to be in the stands. For Duke -- a program trying to generate interest and revenue, to harness the sort of enthusiasm that routinely suffuses Cameron Indoor Stadium -- playing the game in October was a rich opportunity.
Both teams put on a good show. Most spectators from a capacity crowd remained to the end on a clear, crisp night. Duke’s students screamed and waved pompoms, rushing the field when the game was done, happily defying public address announcements discouraging their advance.
“I’ve said it from the get-go,” declared Cutcliffe, the faint ring of the victory bell belonging to the series winner sifting from locker room to press conference. “How great was it going to be for our students to have this game as a home game? I don’t think anybody will question me after this point.”
On that or most any other football subject, at least for now. After all, it’s tough to argue with a man who has Duke atop the ACC’s Coastal Division two-thirds of the way through the 2012 season.