North Carolina waited until there were only a few seconds left to wheel Rameses onto the field aboard the Victory Bell, but the Tar Heels could have started ringing the bell at the end of the third quarter, when they had a 35-point lead on Duke.
Or at halftime, after UNC leveraged a Duke interception to score 14 points in the final 90 seconds of the second quarter and Marquise Williams already had 404 passing yards.
Or after North Carolina’s first offensive play, a flea-flicker that went for an 89-yard Ryan Switzer score as Duke gave up two touchdowns on nine laterals on consecutive plays seven days apart.
Of this touchdown, there was no doubt.
Of this outcome, there was no doubt.
As for the ACC title, there is now considerable doubt after the way the Tar Heels played against their biggest rival in Saturday’s 66-31 win over Duke.
The Tar Heels were left out of the College Football Playoff’s opening rankings and Clemson appears to be the best team in the ACC, but it’s not a foregone conclusion that the trophy is headed to Death Valley. It could still end up in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels demonstrated Saturday just how far they have come since the season-opening loss to South Carolina, and the Coastal Division title is almost within reach, not to mention North Carolina’s first nine-win season since 1997.
“Our guys are excited to be 8-1,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “They also know we can be better than we were.”
While Fedora put the flea-flicker in the game plan, he declined to take a photo with the scoreboard or send a tight end out to kick an extra point as Steve Spurrier did on Duke’s greatest day in this rivalry. This was North Carolina’s greatest day in the rivalry. If the Tar Heels utterly dominated last year’s 45-20 win in Durham, there isn’t an adjective fit for publication that describes what they did to Duke this year.
This was the football equivalent of the basketball game in Cameron in 2009, when North Carolina scored 101 to win its fourth straight at Duke and Mike Krzyzewski admitted afterward, “We’re not as good as they are right now.”
Duke still has a very good defense. North Carolina’s offense is just that much more explosive, especially on a day when everything is clicking, when Williams is on target deep, when the Tar Heels pick up Duke blitzes, when their receivers outrun Duke’s secondary. By the end of the third quarter, North Carolina’s offensive starters were leading the student section in cheers, their day complete.
“When you’re that explosive, it’s just a lot of fun,” North Carolina running back Elijah Hood said. “From the first play, flea-flicker to Switz, touchdown. It’s just what we do.”
Duke coach David Cutcliffe said Tuesday his biggest worry facing North Carolina was “explosive plays, period.” The Tar Heels had nine plays of 20 yards or longer, three that went for touchdowns. They also scored 21 points off three Duke turnovers, without turning the ball over themselves.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many explosive plays executed as their offense did,” Cutcliffe said Saturday.
Two years ago, Duke clinched the Coastal on this same field. North Carolina didn’t clinch Saturday, but it might as well have. Now two games ahead of Duke and Miami, a game ahead of Pittsburgh with tiebreaker in hand, the Tar Heels can lose once and still end up in Charlotte.
They may need that mulligan, with tough games left against Miami, at Virginia Tech in Frank Beamer’s final home game and at N.C. State. Then again, the way they played Saturday, they may not.
“It isn’t always going to be like this,” Fedora said.
Fedora and the North Carolina players said they had no interest in making any kind of a statement. They did anyway. This was a statement to Duke, to the playoff committee, to anyone watching, from the very first play until the bell finally started ringing.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock