The idea was to see all three Triangle football teams recreate some rare history by winning home games on the same Saturday. Only in 1994 had Duke, UNC and N.C. State all claimed home wins on the same day against conference opponents.
North Carolina held up its end of the bargain with an impressive 48-20 dismantling of Georgia Tech. Duke and N.C. State, facing much more formidable opponents, took their decisions to the final seconds before losing to Virginia Tech (24-21) and Florida State (24-20), respectively.
The outcomes made for celebratory, if not uneasy, times in Chapel Hill, where the tailgating crowd began staking claim to parking spaces just as the sun began to rise over the Smith Center in the Bowles parking lot.
The unofficial – OK, it’s official now – Mayor of Bowles, 60-year-old Philip Whitfield, has been parking his 2001 Ford Expedition on the corner space for more than a decade and welcoming his family of friends from all corners of North Carolina. His massive vehicle carries the license tag “TAILGTR” for good reason. Bowles makes the 470-mile round trip from Southern Shores on the Outer Banks in his other car for every UNC home football game. Then he picks up the “TAILGTR” at a local hotel where it is parked year-round.
“It was born in the Outer Banks,” Whitfield said, “and raised in Chapel Hill.”
The pregame menu for Whitfield’s line of city council members and citizens was breakfast sliders, a sausage-and-egg casserole, roast potatoes and apple muffins. The postgame meal was to include barbecue, baked beans, Brunswick stew with moonshine replacing beer as the beverage of choice.
Tim Creef of Winston-Salem and his family of friends were caught in a bit of a conundrum over the day’s football schedule. The Carolina blue-clad fans obviously wanted the Tar Heels to win and keep their faint hopes alive of winning the ACC’s Coastal Division. But they also needed Virginia Tech to lose. That would mean pulling for Duke – oh, no! – to defeat the Hokies later in the afternoon.
“Let’s put it this way, if the shoe was on the other foot and State had to beat Virginia Tech,” Creef said, “well, Go Hokies!”
UNC’s offense came out firing on all cylinders against a defenseless Georgia Tech defense, beginning with a first play that included a double-pass to the conclusion of a first quarter that totaled 250 yards of ground attack and air assault. From there it was a UNC win as cool and refreshing as the breeze that fluttered through Kenan Stadium.
The 11-mile, stadium-to-stadium trek to Durham saw witness to a gallant effort by a Duke team that has been decimated by key injuries throughout this lost season. That the outmanned Blue Devils could take the game’s outcome to the final minute against the nation’s 23rd-ranked team speaks volumes to how far David Cutcliffe has advanced the program in his ninth season.
I almost feel like we’re cursed.
N.C. State running back Matt Dayes
Cutcliffe has brought a winning spirit to Duke that had been lost for decades, using a wide-open offensive attack that can sometimes neutralize more talented opponents. It is a style of play that was likely unrecognizable to that played by the 95-year-old man recognized by Duke between the game’s first and second quarters.
Jim Smith of Louisville, Ky., is the lone surviving participant in the 1942 Rose Bowl that was played at what was then known as Duke Stadium. The game was famously moved from Pasadena, Calif., to Durham because of a government prohibition of large gatherings on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Smith addressed Duke players on Thursday and the team coaching staff on Friday, no doubt giving finer points on what it was like to play with a leather helmet and how exactly the T-formation worked. He probably also did not recognize the surroundings where a two-year renovation project has transformed Wallace Wade Stadium from an unwelcoming pit to a gorgeous place to enjoy a fall afternoon.
Then it was off on the 24-mile jaunt – stadium to stadium – to Carter-Finley Stadium where N.C. State did everything it needed to do to upset 19th-ranked Florida State, except win. The Wolfpack executed a masterful game plan that managed 31 first downs and 469 yards of offense while limiting Florida State’s sensational running back Dalvin Cook to 65 yards rushing, or half of his season-long average.
Florida State pushed across the winning touchdown with 3:09 left in the game. The loss again proved devastating to an N.C. State team that three weeks earlier had third-ranked Clemson on the ropes before losing in overtime.
“I almost feel like we’re cursed,” N.C. State running back Matt Dayes said.
Minutes earlier, Dave Doeren spoke to the media in hushed tones, then wadded up the final statistics sheet as he departed the meeting and angrily slammed the piece of paper into a trash can. Doeren was then consoled at the base of the nearby elevator by his obviously distressed wife and young son.
Somewhere the tailgate crowd in Chapel Hill was smiling.