Duke kept trying to give it away, all of it – the Victory Bell, the Coastal Division title, pride. For so long, North Carolina just wouldn’t take it.
The Tar Heels were up 28-7 in the second quarter and the Blue Devils were spinning their wheels. The game was there for the taking. And Marquise Williams fumbled while being sacked not once, not twice, but three times on three straight drives.
In the second half, North Carolina finally took what Duke was really offering: Redemption.
“We played the way we should have been playing all year,” North Carolina defensive back Tim Scott said. “It finally showed, all the hard work we put in.”
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This 45-20 win against Duke on Thursday, which took the Coastal Division title away from the Blue Devils and awarded it to Georgia Tech, wiped away so many bad memories of this season – the debacle at East Carolina, the rollover at Clemson, the home loss to Virginia Tech.
A win against Duke, in any sport, will do that for the Tar Heels, but it was the manner of the win that really mattered. That oft-maligned North Carolina defense – and deservedly so – suddenly figured out how to tackle, how to rush the quarterback, how to stop the run, while the offense established the run early and wore Duke down to nothing.
“We finally put together a complete game,” a relieved Larry Fedora said after posting his first win against Duke as North Carolina coach.
Duke certainly contributed, with the Blue Devils’ already erratic offense taking a sudden turn for the dismal, but the Tar Heels were the more authoritative team from the start – and they might have had things wrapped up at halftime had they not been so erratic offensively themselves.
With so much on the line, Duke’s start was inconceivable. Two home wins, against North Carolina and Wake Forest, would get the Blue Devils back to Charlotte for another shot at Florida State in the ACC Championship Game.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, needed just one win to secure bowl eligibility despite a 2-4 start, although that would be secondary to reclaiming the Victory Bell that had been North Carolina’s for the better part of decades.
And yet for a good chunk of the game it seemed like neither side really wanted any of it.
Aside from one touchdown drive built around a key fourth-and-3 conversion – a gutsy long pass down the right sideline to Jamison Crowder – Duke’s offense was a disaster in the first half, with two fumbles and four punts. It didn’t get any better after halftime, with Anthony Boone throwing an interception on Duke’s first drive.
North Carolina was just as unhappy despite a three-touchdown halftime lead. The Tar Heels legitimately could easily have been up 49-7 were it not for Williams’ propensity for coughing up the ball under pressure.
There would be no such self-destruction in the second half. The Tar Heels completed the job in businesslike fashion, then went about the fashionable business of repainting the bell Carolina blue. Travis Hughes and Jack Tabb climbed aboard for the long ride across the practice field to the visiting locker room, accompanied by the sickly sweet smell of spray paint, which in this rivalry is the smell of triumph.
“A lot of people thought North Carolina had no shot against Duke on Thursday night on ESPN, on their home field,” Williams said. “We had a different mindset.”
The Tar Heels rang the bell over and over again, celebrating their biggest win in the series since 2001, their bowl eligibility safely secured – along with a little redemption in a season that too often looked like it was headed the wrong way.