The vibe given off by North Carolina’s players after its 42-35 loss to Duke on Saturday was a familiar one.
They were distraught. They felt they let another game slip through their hands when the opportunity was there for them to win. It was UNC’s fifth consecutive loss by 10 points or less.
UNC senior linebacker Cole Holcomb said he knows the Tar Heels are a few plays from winning. He said they just have to play well for a full game.
But when asked how they do that, Holcomb shrugged and said, “I don’t have the answer to that yet.”
Even though the Tar Heels feel they are close to winning, the losses have not gotten any easier. UNC (1-8, 1-6 ACC) has only two games remaining on its schedule, unless it adds a 12th game, and the opportunities to get at least one win become fewer.
“Any time you lose, no matter it be two points or getting blown out, it’s tough,” UNC junior safety Myles Dorn said. “I just hate it. What makes it worse is we’re just a few plays away.”
UNC coach Larry Fedora said Duke (7-3, 3-3 ACC) is a good team and he was proud of his players for fighting. He said he wasn’t worried about their morale.
“They could have shut it down a long time ago,” he said. “They could have shut it down when y’all started talking about they don’t have a bowl game, so why are they playing.
“But they’re not. They’re not going to. That’s not who they are.”
Big performance from Duke’s Jones
UNC’s defense wanted to put on a show against its rival Duke and win back the Victory Bell, which had eluded it for the last two seasons.
UNC had both senior defensive end Malik Carney and sophomore defensive end Tomon Fox back from suspensions, and they were playing together for the first time since Week One.
But it was Duke quarterback, Daniel Jones, who had the star performance. His 547 yards of total offense on Saturday was a record for yards gained against a UNC defense, surpassing a record set by former Louisville star Lamar Jackson, who had 525 yards in September 2017.
UNC got Jones in third and long situations, but he continued to convert them. Duke finished the game 13-for-20 on third downs.
The Tar Heels’ secondary was down to its fourth and fifth-string cornerbacks and Jones took advantage. He had three passes that went for 30 yards or more yards, and two runs that went for 60 yards or more.
“He’s a really good player and he did some unbelievable things today with his arm and his legs,” Fedora said. “Always when you have a situation like that and you’ve got guys in coverage where they’re eyes aren’t on the quarterback and somebody gets out of the gap and he finds it, he can make you pay and that’s what he did today.”
Penalties also hurt the Tar Heels and kept the Blue Devils on the field. UNC had 10 penalties for 115 yards, which was more than it had in its previous three games combined.
Cade Fortin returns
The Tar Heels started the game hot on offense and slow on defense. They had 370 yards of total offense, including 272 rushing yards in the first half. The Tar Heels finished with a season-high 315 rushing yards. UNC sophomore Michael Carter led the way with 148 yards. Junior running back Antonio Williams had 26 yards, but got injured in the first half and did not return.
But in the second half, as they began to struggle, they seemed to go away from the running game and began to pass more.
UNC junior quarterback Nathan Elliott struggled to get the ball down field until late in the fourth quarter. He was 22-41 for 221 yards and one touchdown.
UNC managed to move the ball in Duke territory with one last shot to tie the game and send it to overtime. Fedora put in his freshman quarterback Cade Fortin — who had not played all game — to throw the final Hail Mary pass from the Duke 39-yard-line with six seconds remaining. But his throw was batted down at the goal line by a Duke defender.
After the game, Fedora said he did not play Fortin because he felt Elliott gave them the best chance to win. Fortin injured his knee in UNC’s Oct. 13 game against Virginia Tech and had not played since. He wore a knee brace on Saturday.
“In that instance, he’s got an extremely strong arm and we knew he could at least move around enough to get the ball down field for us,” Fedora said.
It’s unclear whether Fortin will be healthy enough to play going forward. UNC will play Western Carolina (3-6) next week.
As the players left the locker room, they greeted their parents and friends outside. After a few minutes with them, they left on a bus back to Chapel Hill, hoping next week will finally be different.