Facing Blue Devils, Tar Heels took the ball and they kept it

Duke’s Jamison Crowder (3), Shaun Wilson (29) and Anthony Boone (7) watch as UNC drives to the goal in the second quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
Duke’s Jamison Crowder (3), Shaun Wilson (29) and Anthony Boone (7) watch as UNC drives to the goal in the second quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. cliddy@newsobserver.com

The ball boys on the Duke sideline were miffed.

Anthony Boone fumbled, and North Carolina safety Tim Scott picked up the rolling ball and ran it 10 yards into the end zone. And then he took the ball back with him to the Tar Heels’ sideline.

Yeah, we’re not getting that ball back, one ball boy said to the other.

He could have been speaking for the entire Duke team.

That score, off of Duke’s second fumble of the game, put UNC ahead 14-0 with 7:49 left in the first quarter.

The Blue Devils were only able to make it a one-score affair for 2:56 of game time the rest of the way.

The game wouldn’t officially end for three more hours, Duke’s embarrassment playing out in excruciatingly slow fashion on national TV. When the clock mercifully hit zero, UNC danced off the field with a 45-20 win.

Two weeks ago, Duke was still alive in the College Football Playoff, one of 10 teams with fewer than two losses. All the Blue Devils had to do was beat last-place Virginia Tech and an underachieving UNC team, and there would be a return trip to the ACC Championship game in Charlotte and the inside track to an Orange Bowl invite, too.

But when the stakes were the highest, Duke played its worst.

Gone are the shot at the Orange Bowl and a second Coastal Division title.

"In these circumstances, words are never easy," head coach David Cutcliffe said.

Running back Shaquille Powell, who carried the ball just four times—tied for the most out of any of Duke’s running backs—gave it his best shot.

"Really, we just got out-competed throughout the whole game," Powell said. "UNC played great, they played real hungry, and we didn’t play like we wanted to go out there and go to the ACC Championship."

Of course, the million-dollar question: Why?

"We just didn’t expect them to play that hard," Powell said of UNC. "We thought it would be an easier game."

That’s certainly how it looked, like Duke expected to win. Confidence can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to athletic endeavors.

Quarterback Anthony Boone, who continued his season-long regression, disagreed. Instead, he pinned everything that went wrong on execution and execution alone.

There certainly was precious little of that for the Duke offense, which had just 161 yards of total offense—86 yards without the one lone bright spot of a touchdown drive in the first half—to UNC’s 449 once the Tar Heels unofficially officially ended it, going up 35-7 early in the third quarter.

"When there were plays to be made of the field, we didn’t execute, and that’s what it comes down to," Boone said.

"Nothing specific," Boone added. "We just have to take care of the ball."

A night that had started with no much energy ended so empty for the Blue Devils.

They never did get that ball back. And they lost that Victory Bell, too.

And the Coastal Division championship.

And the inside track to the Orange Bowl.

"Tough pill to swallow," Cutcliffe said.

Tough, indeed.

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