It was easy in the beginning for North Carolina on Thursday night: two touchdowns on its first two drives, two defensive stops – a start reminiscent of its past two years against Duke, both of those coming in efficient, emphatic Tar Heels' victories.
And so for UNC it looked all so familiar throughout most of the first quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium. And then, well … and then things happened that no one on UNC's side could explain afterward, after the Tar Heels' surrendered that early lead and endured a 28-27 defeat that in some ways defied logic.
“Man, I'm not even sure,” Nazair Jones, the junior defensive tackle, said afterward. He'd been asked what had changed – how the Tar Heels had failed after their successful start, how Duke had adapted. Jones could only speak for UNC's defense, but his answer could have applied to the offense, too.
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Moments earlier, in fact, Mitch Trubisky provided his own variation of the phrase.
“I don't know,” he said, when asked how the Tar Heels went from putting together two long opening scoring drives to one of the most impotent offensive performances in recent memory under coach Larry Fedora. “We're going to have to watch the film. Couldn't tell you. It's disappointing. It's mostly on me.”
Trubisky completed 12 of his first 15 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns, the third of which gave UNC a 21-14 lead with 8 ½ minutes remaining in the second quarter. From there, though, the game changed dramatically.
After that start, Trubisky completed 12 of his remaining 18 attempts for 97 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, the final of which came with 62 seconds remaining. By then, Trubisky and UNC were attempting to pull off another dramatic comeback.
The Tar Heels had done that twice already this season, once against Pittsburgh at home, on Sept. 24, and then the next weekend at Florida State. This time, though, UNC never recaptured the magic – never came close, even, to putting itself in position to win late.
Fedora said he fully expected UNC to take the lead on its final possession. Instead, on a first down from the Tar Heels' 18, Trubisky dropped back and, under pressure, threw a pass deep down the middle right to Alonzo Saxton, the Blue Devils' safety.
It was a confounding gaffe for Trubisky, who entered Thursday night having completed more than 70 percent of his passes. On his final one against Duke, there wasn't a UNC receiver in the vicinity.
“My first two or three initial reads weren't open,” Trubisky said afterward, his explanations short. “Tried to work scramble drill, thought someone was working back to me. And I just let go of it when I shouldn't have.”
The play was a microcosm of the game, one moment that resembled so many others: When presented with opportunities, either offensively or defensively, Duke often capitalized. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, were either too sloppy to put themselves in sound position, or too ineffective to execute when they did.
UNC, for instance, had at least two prime chances to secure its first interception of the season. Instead, though, a bizarre streak of futility continued. The Tar Heels, who'd won seven of their past eight games, remained the only team in the country without an interception, while every other team has at least three.
The opportunity cost of those lost turnovers hurt. Then there was run defense, which for 15th-ranked UNC existed in name only. Daniel Jones, the Duke quarterback, often ran outside of tackles, up the field into empty space and finished with 94 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.
“You've just got to keep him in the pocket,” M.J. Stewart, the junior cornerback, said afterward. “Because if you don't, y'all saw what happened.”
And how did it happen, exactly?
“They caught us in man sometimes,” Stewart said, “and the quarterback scrambled and got out the pocket and made some plays with his legs.”
After UNC built that early 14-0 lead, Duke coach David Cutcliffe and his staff appeared to make adjustments that helped the Blue Devils reverse their fortunes. Fedora, meanwhile, had difficulty explaining how it all fell apart on his side.
He attributed the offensive malaise during the final 2 ½ quarters to a general lack of execution. He said he didn't find Duke's defensive plan especially confusing.
“I don't think they did anything, scheme-wise, to create problems for us,” Fedora said.
And the Tar Heels didn't lack for problems. During their final seven drives, they gained 157 yards on 37 plays, scored no touchdowns, punted three times and committed two turnovers.
Among the footnotes of the defeat, Elijah Hood, the junior running back who ran for a season-high 168 yards last weekend, went missing from the offense just as UNC's effectiveness began to wane. Fedora said he didn't know why Hood's role diminished.
“I'd have to ask Larry and those guys what was going on,” Fedora said, referring to running backs coach Larry Porter. “There was a point there where we weren't running the ball efficiently enough, that we felt like we were going to need to throw it.”
UNC arrived having scored 111 points the past two years against Duke. The fast start gave the Tar Heels hope it'd be more of the same. Suddenly, though, their offense faltered and their defense reverted to early-season form and Duke “just wanted it more,” Nazair Jones said.
Before Thursday, UNC still maintained hope of winning the Coastal Division, though that hope was dependent on Virginia Tech losing an ACC game and the Tar Heels winning the rest of theirs. By the end of the night, that goal – like UNC's early lead – no longer existed.
“Not anymore,” Jones said, while he and his teammates tried to figure out what had just happened, and how.