Sure there’s plenty to nitpick from the Duke point of view from Saturday’s short trip to Kenan Stadium.
The Blue Devils did little with three trips into the red zone when the could have put more distance between themselves and North Carolina.
The defense, despite controlling the line of scrimmage all day, was victimized by three big plays that led to UNC’s two touchdowns.
The kicking game remains a source of indigestion.
But there’s plenty of time for the coaching staff to fret about those issues.
Instead, David Cutcliffe sat back in his chair and appeared relaxed in his postgame news conference, content with all the good his unbeaten Blue Devils churned out in beating the Tar Heels 27-17.
Duke scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to rally for the win, the 100th of Cutcliffe’s coaching career that includes six seasons at Mississippi and now 10 at Duke.
It was, to use Cutcliffe’s word, a “heavyweight” game that Duke found a way to slug its way through and win. The Blue Devils have already matched their win total from last season’s disappointing 4-8 campaign.
The program has turned itself around 180 degrees from 2016. Saturday’s win at UNC showed just how much.
“I did a poor job of maturing our program, our team a year ago,” Cutcliffe said. “We had had a lot of good things happen to our program that hadn’t happened for a while at Duke. Adversity wasn’t something we stared at. We had a lot of good players back last year. People said, well you had a bunch of injuries. That’s right, but the fact is that we didn’t handle adversity at all.”
The win over UNC showed that Duke is well on its way back to a bowl game – its fifth in six seasons. And it may be on its way to another season with 9 or 10 wins, something the program produced in 2013 and 2014.
Here are the ways Duke showed how different it is on Saturday:
The offense stayed composed
Duke scored a touchdown on its third possession, the final time it had the ball in the first quarter, to lead 7-3.
The Blue Devils didn’t find the end zone again until the fourth quarter when they needed a touchdown to regain the lead.
In between, Duke drove the ball inside the UNC 10 three times and had just six points to show for those drives. Austin Parker made two of his three field goal attempts, but that left Duke trailing UNC 17-13 entering the fourth quarter.
Still, the Blue Devils took solace in the fact they were controlling the line of scrimmage. The Blue Devils finished with 186 rushing yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry,
They could move the ball. They just needed a big play they were confident would come.
“We believed it was going to happen for us the whole game,” Duke quarterback Daniel Jones said. “You don’t let the momentum of the game affect how we think. We always thought it was going to be up to us in the fourth quarter. That’s how it was.”
That play came on Duke’s second possession of the fourth quarter. At that point, the Blue Devils had just 94 total yards in the second half.
But Jones fired the ball deep toward T.J. Rahming, who caught the ball for a 45-yard gain despite UNC defensive backs Myles Dorn and Nathan Elliott guarding him closely.
Three plays later Jones completed a 12-yard pass to Johnathan Lloyd on fourth down to the UNC 12. Shaun Wilson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 6:09 to play put Duke in front for good.
Jones completed 18 of 34 passes for 202 yards and was sacked three times. But he didn’t throw an interception. Duke also didn’t lose a fumble.
That kind of mistake-free play by the offense and the way it confidently scored the touchdown needed to win, is a big positive for Duke.
The defense dominated the line of scrimmage
Like in the 34-20 win over Baylor. Duke’s defense was burned by a handful of big plays. Chazz Surratt completed passes covering 45 and 35 yards on a lightning-quick 80-yard touchdown drive that tied the halftime score at 10.
The speedy Surratt evaded Duke’s rush to scamper 56 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that put UNC up 17-13.
Those plays count, too, of course. But Duke still limited UNC to just 118 rushing yards, a mere 3.6 yards per carry.
The Blue Devils racked up 11 tackles for losses, with redshirt senior defensive tackle Mike Ramsay netting 2.5 and linebacker Ben Humphreys two. The pressure came from everywhere as eight different players recorded a tackle for loss.
UNC had six drives where it failed to secure a first down. After the Tar Heels took their 17-13 lead, they had the ball three times with a chance to build on that advantage.
They ran 12 plays on those three drives, gaining only 23 yards.
“It was just being hungry,” Ramsay said. “We had to dig down deep and get it done.”
Two years ago at Kenan Stadium UNC blistered Duke in a 66-31 shellacking. The Tar Heels had a few of those big plays on Saturday, but Duke’s defense played well otherwise.
On the biggest play, Duke played together
Redshirt senior cornerback Bryon Fields intercepted a fourth-quarter pass by Surratt and returned it 61 yards for the touchdown that put Duke up 27-17. The play sealed the win.
It also showed how together these Blue Devils are.
Surratt threw the ball errantly thanks to heavy pressure from freshman defensive end Drew Jordan. Another freshman, safety Michael Carter II, delivered a key block that allowed Fields to score.
Cutcliffe marveled at that play’s beauty.
“You want to talk about team defense,” Cutcliffe said. “That came from pressure from our people up front. It came from rallying to the ball. I don’t know if you saw how well he ran with the football but how his teammates turned from defense to offense. I kept worrying about a push in the back. But legal timely blocks. Here we are struggling to get it in the end zone on offense. The interception was great. But the pick-six was even better. Nobody was cheering any harder than me at that time for him to do that.”