Sometimes, when points are lighting up the scoreboard and the defenses can’t keep up, having the best player on the field makes all the difference.
For Duke on Saturday against rival North Carolina, having Daniel Jones on its side meant winning a back-and-forth game.
Jones set a pair of Duke school records while running and passing for an eye-popping 547 yards. He had a hand in four of the Blue Devils’ touchdowns and they all were needed in a 42-35 win at Wallace Wade Stadium.
“Daniel Jones played as well as a quarterback can play,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I don’t know how many total yards he would have ended up with had we caught everything he threw. But what a tremendous effort.”
Jones ran for 186 yards, a Duke single-game record for a quarterback. That included a 61-yard touchdown run in the final seconds of the first half that gave the Blue Devils (7-3, 3-3 ACC) a 35-28 halftime lead.
After a see-saw first half that saw three ties and three lead changes, they never relinquished that lead.
Jones added a 68-yard run in the third quarter that was first called a 70-yard touchdown run. A replay review showed that a tiring Jones was tackled at the 2 before reaching the end zone.
The redshirt junior completed 31 of 54 passes for 361 yards with three touchdown throws. Chris Taylor caught a 52-yard touchdown pass. T.J. Rahming’s 48-yard catch and a 34-yarder to Johnathan Lloyd didn’t go for scores, but they were indicative of Jones’ big-play day.
“It is a blessing to have him has a friend and a quarterback the way he prepares,” Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys said. “He pushes me every day to prepare harder and work harder.”
Jones carved up the UNC defense even in situations that appeared dire for the Blue Devils’ offense. Duke converted 13 of 20 third downs. That included getting first downs six of seven times in the first half when Duke faced third-and-5 or longer. Jones ran for 20 yards in one such situation.
His 61-yard touchdown run came on third-and-4. His 68-yarder was on a second-and-2 play.
“Part of that’s the scheme that Carolina is a lot of man-to-man so it opens up opportunities for the quarterback to run,” Jones said. “I think on both of those long runs I might not have even gotten touched -- I don’t remember -- so credit goes to the offensive linemen. Those seams were open. I just tried to run as fast as I could. That was fun and a lot of credit goes to the guys up front.”
Jones’ performance kept him unbeaten in three games against UNC. It just might mean he’ll leave Duke without losing to the rival Tar Heels.
NFL scouts from nine teams were credentialed for Saturday’s game. They saw how well Jones played.
He’s eligible to enter the 2019 draft and forego his final season of eligibility at Duke. The way he played Saturday will only boost his stock and make it harder for him to stay at Duke for the 2019 season.
Jones was a big factor in Duke’s fifth win over UNC in the last seven seasons. Despite the final score, Duke’s defense made game-winning plays too.
It was a long first half for both defenses as the teams combined for nine touchdowns. For the Blue Devils, it was reminiscent of two weeks earlier at Pittsburgh when the Duke defense struggled all day in a 54-45 loss.
Duke entered the UNC game playing without its leading tackler, all-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris (knee). The Blue Devils are already playing without two other starters who are lost for the season in defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord and cornerback Mark Gilbert.
During Saturday’s game, starting safety Dylan Singleton suffered a broken leg which will require surgery and end his season. Two other defensive backs, safety Marquis Waters and cornerback Michael Carter II, left the game with unspecified injuries and didn’t return.
That meant Jordan Hayes filled in at safety and Josh Blackwell took over at a cornerback slot. Leonard Johnson and Lummie Young helped replace Waters.
Brandon Hill got his first start at linebacker, Koby Quansah played some but is still limited after breaking a bone in his foot in practice on Oct. 10.
Still, after allowing 370 yards and four touchdowns to UNC in the first half, Duke clamped down in the second half.
UNC’s first three possessions after halftime were after Duke mistakes -- a blocked field goal and two lost fumbles.
Each time, Duke’s defense stopped UNC without allowing a first down and got the offense the ball back after the Tar Heels punted.
“I’m sitting there thinking, as well as we’ve played, it’s like dropping foul balls (in baseball),” Cutcliffe said. “You know what happens after you drop foul balls, right? They hit home runs. The reason we were able to right that off was the fight of our entire team.”
Hill led Duke with 10 tackles. Hayes finished with five tackles, including a tackle for loss.
“We played like a Duke defense is capable of playing no matter who is on the field,” Humphreys said. “I think guys did a great job of doing their job in the second half. Play their 1/11th.”