There was a point late in the game at Notre Dame in September when Duke, a team that had won only one of three games to that moment, suddenly seemed to swell with self-belief and confidence. The Blue Devils absorbed every blow from that point, swung back with everything they had, came away with a remarkable win that may not be flattered by the Irish’s record since but was no less impressive at the time.
And there was a point late in the game against North Carolina on Thursday when Duke, which had beaten only Army since that Notre Dame win, again visibly recaptured all the focus and swagger that had characterized its rise to football prominence over the past few years. The Blue Devils took the lead late in the third quarter and gave up a field goal but generated two long drives to keep North Carolina’s potent offense off the field while the Duke defense rose to the occasion.
North Carolina’s final chance came to naught when Mitch Trubisky – unstoppable early in the game – threw his second interception of the night on a play when the Tar Heels were caught holding anyway, allowing Duke to run out the clock on a momentous 28-27 win – the Blue Devils’ first in this series since 2013 but third in the past five years.
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“It means a lot,” said defensive lineman A.J. Wolf, a fifth-year senior. “After that interception on the last drive, I started tearing up. The only other time I did that was after the Pinstripe Bowl (last year).”
A year after Duke’s most accomplished senior class in more than 70 years exited the scene with a bowl victory, this senior class has had a tougher road to this final game at Wallace Wade. Home losses to Wake Forest and Virginia were sharp departures from the recent past. Injuries have robbed the Blue Devils of some of their most critical players, from All-American defensive back and returner DeVon Edwards to quarterback Thomas Sirk and beyond. Cornerback Breon Borders missed senior night as well with a late hip injury that didn’t even make Duke’s injury report this week.
Thursday night’s victory will go a long way toward polishing these seniors’ record. (And not seniors, but also at their final home games, were retiring university president Richard Brodhead and radio broadcaster Bob Harris.) With 31 victories in their career, only five Duke classes have had more. They posted nationally televised wins over Notre Dame and North Carolina in what were unquestionably the two biggest games of the season.
“Their efforts have been heroic,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “The 31st victory in their careers doesn't need go go unnoticed. That alone is special. And it was a valiant effort by our team tonight to just not go away.”
A bowl berth is now back within reach, since the Blue Devils need only one more win to get to five and their academic progress ranking would put them atop the list of 5-7 teams looking to fill openings. Games at Pittsburgh and Miami won’t be easy, but this one wasn’t, either.
The Tar Heels, after all, were still harboring hopes of a comeback in the Coastal Division, even if they needed some help from Virginia Tech. That made this loss doubly devastating for North Carolina, which looked to be utterly in control of the game early, able to do no wrong on offense, before Duke’s defensive line applied enough pressure to bail out its patched-together secondary and some curious play-calling derailed the Tar Heels. Elijah Hood had 75 yards on 13 carries and five catches for 58 yards, which once again wasn’t enough touches in a North Carolina loss.
As the Blue Devils raced for the opposite sideline to reclaim the Victory Bell and the Duke students stormed the field, the players were only able to wheel it as far as the back of the end zone near their sideline. (There was no spray paint in immediate evidence.) From that point, the Tar Heels had to trudge past to get to their locker room, a long walk with the sound of the Victory Bell ringing in their ears.
The bell would shortly arrive among the jubilant masses in midfield, where Duke’s senior class took its final steps on Wallace Wade’s turf, having finally done something their predecessors did not.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock