Twice during the second half last Saturday, Duke coach David Cutcliffe had his team run fourth-down plays rather than kick.
One decision was strategic, based in numbers and analytics. The other was more primal, a gut feeling and a message to his team.
Had Duke not made them, the game’s outcome would likely have been reversed. But Duke converted both, scoring 10 points and beating rival North Carolina 27-17 in Chapel Hill.
“I love our team believing that we can make fourth downs, critically make them,” Cutcliffe said. “I’m a big believer that in certain situations you have to. Even if you get stopped you are better off with the message that you sent to your squad. That’s kind of what all came into play.’
Here’s a look at those two fourth-down plays:
The first fourth-down conversion
Duke seemed to be in control of the game late in the first half, leading 10-3 and driving deep in UNC territory. But after a dropped touchdown pass and a mishandled snap that led to a missed field goal attempt, UNC scored a touchdown with 22 seconds left in the half to tie the game at 10.
In the locker room, Cutcliffe didn’t berate his team for its poor finish to the half. Instead, he focused on how the team dominated all but those final 22 seconds. Duke was the better team and would show it in the second half, he believed.
On the first drive of the second half, Duke found itself facing fourth-and-1 from its own 34. Cutliffe put backup redshirt sophomore quarterback Quentin Harris in the game.
A failure to convert would give UNC the ball with a short field and the Tar Heels would have even more momentum.
But Cutcliffe was confident.
“I had a strong belief system in our people,” Cutcliffe said. “That was our first possession of the second half. If you think about the way the first half ended with us with a mishandled field goal them scoring on a two-play drive the length of the field, I just didn’t feel like we could punt the ball right there fourth-and-inches and feel like we were playing to win the game.”
Harris ran behind the middle of Duke’s line to gain one yard for the first down.
Duke proceeded to move down the field, gaining four more first downs on a drive that reached the UNC 5 before redshirt sophomore kicker Parker made a 27-yard field goal to put Duke ahead 13-10.
The second fourth-down conversion
Duke remained stuck on 13 points until the fourth quarter.
Down 17-13 and facing third-and-7 at UNC’s 26, Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper knew the Blue Devils would have two downs to gain those yards. Even with more than seven minutes on the clock, they were not going to settle for a field goal attempt, which would have left UNC up by a point, at least, and getting the ball back.
“We needed to be aggressive,” Cutcliffe said. “I wasn’t playing for field goal opportunities.”
Senior running back Shaun Wilson ran for two yards up the middle on third down. On fourth-and-5, Jones fired the ball over the middle, sneaking it between UNC defenders to redshirt junior wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd, who gained 12 yards for the first down.
“That was a look we were getting throughout the game,” Jones said. “Johnathan did a little rub there and did a great job getting away from his guy.”
Duke ran three running plays, the final being Wilson’s 1-yard touchdown that put the Blue Devils in the lead for good, at 20-17, with 6:09 to play.
Two fourth-down decisions worked. One was non-conventional, the other where the math dictated that Duke needed seven points.