In a rivalry game that saw emotions swing one way, then another, then back again all day and even in the final minutes, Duke’s mistakes left it angry, distraught and approaching despondent.
The final miscue came with Duke seemingly ready to beat rival North Carolina when a Blue Devils’ loss looked almost certain just a few minutes earlier.
Trailing by three points with 18 seconds left, Duke called a trick play on first and goal from the UNC 2.
Running back Deon Jackson took the handoff and had two choices as he jumped to see over the line -- throw it to tight end Noah Gray in the back of the end zone or, if Gray was covered, throw it well out of the end zone so Duke could run another play.
A third thing happened and it was disastrous for the Blue Devils.
Jackson was hit as he threw the ball. It went directly to UNC linebacker Chazz Surratt, who intercepted it with 14 seconds left and gave UNC the 20-17 win.
That turnover was Duke’s third of the game. It marked the second time the Blue Devils had the ball inside the UNC 5 and failed to score a touchdown.
This final time, of course, hurt the most.
“You hate to see a game end like that for players that fought their heart out,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said.
Jackson lay on the field in disbelief, not wanting to get up and head back to the sideline because that would have made the mistake all the more real. His teammates did their best to support him.
UNC took a knee and ran out the clock.
Duke defensive tackle Edgar Cerenord was the first Blue Devil off the field. The sixth-year senior, who’s been part of this rivalry since 2014, slammed his helmet in disgust as he headed up the tunnel toward Duke’s locker room.
The play call that ‘went awry’
The Blue Devils (4-4, 2-3 ACC) are left with plenty of what ifs to ponder as they head into an open week before playing Notre Dame on Nov. 9.
The play call to have Jackson attempt a pass at the goal line is just one topic, albeit the most pressing.
Cutcliffe said he had no problem with running that play given Duke has successfully used it to score touchdowns in the past.
“We called a little jump pass there at the end that we’ve used sparingly before,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s been really good. We’ve had it oiled up and ready for about the last three weeks. It didn’t work. No mystery. It just didn’t work. Nobody is more disappointed than all of us are. Tough way to end a game.”
Harris, responsible for Duke’s other two turnovers, had no problem with Jackson throwing the final pass rather than him.
“I feel for Deon because I’ve been in situations where I’ve thrown picks in crucial situations as well,” Harris said. “But definitely didn’t second guess the play call. I thought it was a good play call. It’s been a good play for us in the past. It just kind of went awry in this particular case.”
Duke’s moxie and missed opportunities
Duke showed moxie in rallying from a 14-3 third-quarter deficit to lead 17-14. When UNC, leading 20-17 with 3:01 remaining, had the ball at the Duke 3, the game was about to be out of reach for the Blue Devils.
But defensive tackle Trevon McSwain jarred the ball loose from UNC running back Javonte Williams and Duke’s Shaka Heyward recovered to give Duke another chance.
“We have a team that has a lot of fight in them,” Cutcliffe said. “Nobody backed down.”
Harris drove Duke inside the UNC 20 with the Blue Devils surviving two fourth downs along the way.
Duke needed a field goal to send the game to overtime and a touchdown to win it.
But that was only because of a failed situation in the first quarter.
With the game scoreless, Duke had a first down with the ball on UNC’s 1. A run up the middle went for no gain.
On the next play, Duke right guard Rak Chambers was called for a false start. That’s one of three Duke had in the game, two by Chambers.
A loud, sellout crowd of 50,500 packed Kenan Stadium for the game. But Cutcliffe and Harris both said the noise coming from some of the 11 UNC defenders on the field led to the false starts.
“That was them and their little shift and them hollering, `Go! Now! Go!’” Cutcliffe said. “We’ve got to handle that, I guess. Maybe we need to start doing that defensively.”
No matter what caused it, Chambers’ false start moved Duke back five yards to the 6. Two Harris passes into the end zone fell incomplete before AJ Reed kicked a 23-yard field goal for a 3-0 Duke lead.
Those four points missed proved mighty costly as did Harris’ fumble while being sacked at the UNC 32 in the second quarter. That was another missed opportunity for points deep in Tar Heels territory.
Another came on Duke’s last possession of the first half with UNC leading 7-3. From the UNC 34, Harris overshot a wide-open Scott Bracey down the middle of the field and UNC’s Dominique Ross intercepted it.
Six times inside UNC’s 35 and Duke only managed 17 points.
That’s how Duke saw its three-game winning streak over UNC end in a most heartbreaking fashion.
“It definitely stings,” Harris said, “for a game like this where you are playing for the Victory Bell, playing for the Coastal Division. To have a game like this where you had a shot to tie it or a chance to get the lead definitely hurts.”