By AL FEATHERSTON
Only a long-time Duke fan could appreciate how cathartic Saturday night's game-winning drive against North Carolina really was.
Only a fan who had endured the succession of heartrending losses to the rival Tar Heels over the last four decades could watch UNC's improbable go-ahead touchdown and not be haunted by memories of past heartbreaks -- from Mike McGee's last Duke game in 1979 (when the Devils lost a 15-3 lead in the final minutes) to Ted Roof's final loss in overtime in 2008 (when the Devils missed field goals at the end of regulation and in overtime); from Mike Voight's long run to beat Duke 39-38 in 1976 to Octavius Barnes' late touchdown catch and run to beat Duke's last bowl team, 41-40 in 1994, to the missed extra point that was the difference in a 45-44 loss in 2006.
And it seemed to be happening again. Duke dominated the game's first three quarters, holding UNC without a touchdown and building a 23-9 lead.
But on the very first play of the fourth quarter, head coach David Cutcliffe gambled on a fake punt and when Walt Canty's surprise sneak failed, North Carolina had the ball near midfield and -- more importantly -- finally had momentum.
Over the next few minutes, UNC scored three touchdowns -- the last coming on a long pass that was fumbled deep in Duke territory. Blue Devil cornerback Ross Cockrell appeared to be on the spot to recover, but when he landed atop the ball, it squirted from beneath him ... and it bounced right to UNC's Gio Bernard who caught it in stride and took it the rest of the way for the go-ahead touchdown.
Down 30-26 with just 3:12 to play, it looked like Duke was due to endure another nightmarish loss to its rival.
But Cutcliffe wouldn't let his team -- which had wilted in adversity a week earlier at Virginia Tech -- let down on this occasion.
"What I told our offensive line -- immediately -- was, 'You know what? They blew it. They scored with too much time left on the clock. This is exactly what we want ... we're exactly where we want to be,'" he said. "We've always tried to equip our young men to handle those situations ... any situation. We didn't handle it at Virginia Tech."
All week after that collapse, Cutcliffe and his staff preached a new mantra.
"I talked to them about it last Sunday," Cutcliffe said. "I talked to them Monday, Tuesday ... I talked to them about it in the motel [Friday night]. We put a little phrase word together and what it meant was, we're not going any way but forward."
Duke had to go forward from its own 13 after kick return man Lee Butler was nailed there by UNC's coverage team.
What followed has to rank as the greatest drive in modern Duke football history -- 87 yards on 14 plays. That was both the most yards and the most plays for any Duke scoring drive this season.
And considering the importance of the game -- it not only made Duke bowl eligible for the first time since 1994, the win also left Duke in sole possession of first place in the ACC's Coastal Division and, of course, it came against UNC -- it's hard to remember a game-winning drive that could match it.
"That's a great fourth-quarter win -- to be able to take it almost the length of the field with that much on the line," Cutcliffe said. The 30-year coaching veteran added: "I don't remember any of them much better than that -- anywhere."
It started innocently enough with a five-yard pass to sophomore Issac Blakeney. But the first sign it would be special came on third down from the Duke 18, when quarterback Sean Renfree found senior wide receiver Conner Vernon cutting across the middle and hit him in stride for what the ACC's all-time leading pass-catcher turned into a 29-yard gain.
"It was one of those things -- the two-minute drill, we practice it all the time," Vernon said. "Sean just put it out there and we went to work. We didn't panic. As soon as we got the ball back, we knew we were going to play."
Moments later, Duke ran the same play to convert another third-down play -- Vernon catching it over the middle and taking it 15 yards to the UNC 36. A few moments later, Renfree hit freshman Jela Duncan out of the backfield to convert a third straight third down.
The precision of the offense on the final drive left Vernon struggling to explain it.
"When we played North Carolina here my sophomore year, it came down to a two-minute drill and they stopped us," he recalled. "I've never seen it executed like that. I'm at a loss for words."
Duke faced a 4th-and-2 and the UNC five-yard line with 19 seconds left when Cutcliffe called his last timeout to set up the decisive play.
"You put yourself in position where you have multiple receivers, multiple options on both sides," Cutcliffe said. "You've got two in-breaking routes -- Desmond [Scott] coming under ... Jamison [Crowder] coming under. You've got our big man [6-6 Issac Blakeney) running the end-line. On the backside, you've got a really good player in Conner who's got some options based on coverages."
Crowder, who lined up wide to Renfree's right, said he made a very subtle adjustment just before the snap.
"I knew my route was a five-yard in route," he said. "As I came to the line, I looked at the scoreboard to see what yard-line the ball was on. I saw it was the five ... I wanted to make sure that I got inside leverage on the defender and got in the end zone."
The point is that he ran his five-yard slant at five-and-a-half yards, so that he was just past the goalline when Renfree rocketed the ball in his direction. The Blue Devil quarterback had a small target -- Crowder was bracketed by UNC cornerback Tim Scott behind him and UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick in his face, but Renfree put a bullet in Crowder's chest.
"Jamison, who is as quick as a cat, got himself inside the corner," Cutcliffe said. "Sean said, 'I trusted him'. I don't blame him, I trust him too."
The final test was when Crowder took a shot from Reddick that flipped him on his back.
But he held the ball.
"When I saw the ball come my way, I wanted to make the catch and hold onto it like it was my baby," he said. "When I realized I still had it, I wanted to get to the sideline and celebrate with my teammates."
Crowder had a lot to celebrate. He is a native North Carolinian who came to Duke from Monroe High School. He is one of 28 North Carolinians on the roster, including such prominent players as fellow wide receiver Desmond Scott, running backs Josh Snead and Jela Duncan (who rushed for 99 and 64 yards respectively), cornerback Ross Cockrell, linebacker Kyler Brown (who broke up two passes and made six tackles), safety Brandon Braxton, backup quarterback Anthony Boone (who scored Duke's first touchdown), cornerback Tony Foster, starting offensive tackles Takoby Cofield and Perry Simmons (who paved the way for Duke's monster 234-yard rushing night), defensive tackle Nick Sink, tight end Issac Blakeney, and defensive end Justin Foxx.
"We had eight North Carolinians on the team when we got here," Cutcliffe said. "Now we have quite a few."
It was no coincidence that Desmond Scott -- a Durham Hillside product who was recruited by UNC -- was the first Duke player to reach and ring the Victory Bell after the game. Before the game, Cockrell, who came to Duke from Latin High in Charlotte, N.C., complained that he had never gotten to ring the bell and talked about how much he wanted that experience.
"I didn't get to ring it," he said after the game. "There was a lot of craziness going on. I'll ring it [Sunday] morning."
Cutcliffe was doused with spray paint (he helped the players repaint the bell from light blue to Duke blue on the field) and Gatorade. He said he was also waiting until Sunday morning to ring the bell.
It won't be hard -- the players stashed the bell in their locker room.
A lot of Duke players deserve to ring it -- the defense that held the potent UNC offense without a touchdown for three quarters; the trio of running backs and their blockers up front who generated Duke's best rushing game of the Cutcliffe era; freshman placekicker Ross Martin, who was perfect on four field goals and three extra points, setting a freshman scoring record (and raising his season field goal percentage to 14 of 15); Renfree, who was outstanding at quarterback, throwing for 276 yards against the ACC's second most-efficient pass defense, and his receivers, especially the trio of Vernon, Jamison and Scott.
"I don't know if anybody in the country has three receivers playing better than our three receivers," Cutcliffe said.
Still, it took a miraculous fourth-quarter drive to erase the demons that have plagued Duke football against North Carolina.
"At the end of the day, we make the plays," Cockrell said. "We made more plays than they did."