North Carolina

UNC shows what could have been in big victory against Duke

UNC's Tim Scott (7) celebrates after returning a Duke fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham.
UNC's Tim Scott (7) celebrates after returning a Duke fumble for a touchdown in the first quarter at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. rwillett@newsobserver.com

It finally happened. After 10 games and all the misery – the poor start, the embarrassing defeats – it finally happened: The team North Carolina thought it had – the one that a lot of people expected to compete for the Coastal Division championship – showed up on Thursday night.

The result: a 45-20 victory against Duke that provided a look – a long one – at what might have been for UNC this season. What could have been, if only the Tar Heels could have put it all together – offense, defense, kicking game – in September instead of late November.

No, it wasn't perfect. Even during a blowout victory that represented its most complete, thorough performance of the season, the Tar Heels made it difficult on themselves – or more difficult than it had to be.

UNC early in the second quarter led 28-7 after Marquise Williams, the junior quarterback, scored on a 1-yard run on a 4th-and-goal. And then UNC had a chance – and another chance, and another chance – to take a 35-7 lead before committing three consecutive turnovers.

So a complete game this was not. There were those three fumbles, all by Williams – all on sacks.

No matter, though. In a season of lows – some of them embarrassing, like that 70-41 loss at East Carolina, and some of them bizarre, like that preseason fight involving four defensive players and a walk-on receiver – this was the highest of highs. Finally.

That two-game losing streak against Duke – UNC’s first since the late 1980s? Now a thing of the past. The Victory Bell? It was on Thursday night on its way back to Chapel Hill, where it resided for 21 out of 22 years before the Blue Devils beat UNC the past two years.

For once, the Tar Heels put it all together – or at least put it all together as much as they could in this long, strange season. UNC began the season with the expectation of competing for the Coastal Division championship.

Those hopes faded amid a 2-4 start. They evaporated during a listless loss at Miami earlier this month.

But now look: With a victory against N.C. State next week, UNC will finish the regular season with seven wins and a 5-3 record in the ACC. Though they are still bowl-eligible, those are hardly the kind of results that will win Larry Fedora coach of the year honors.

UNC can’t erase its disappointing start and it won’t – and shouldn’t – be forgotten. For one game, though, these were the Tar Heels a lot of people expected to see from the start.

The offense was as advertised, a balanced mix of run and pass, the big plays coming, at times, in rapid succession. The Tar Heels scored their first drive after Williams completed a screen pass that T.J. Logan, the sophomore running back, turned into a 22-yard gain.

Moments later it was the defense – statistically the worst in school history – that provided a touchdown when Tim Scott, the senior safety, picked up a fumble and returned it 10 yards. And not too long after that, Logan set up another touchdown with a 47-yard run to the Duke 1-yard line.

And just like that the Tar Heels led 21-7. And then it was 28-7, after another touchdown that came after another big play – this on another screen pass, 45 yards from Williams to Switzer to the Duke 15.

It got a little ugly for UNC then. The defense kept getting stops. The offense kept moving inside the Duke 30-yard line, and kept turning it over not long after. And so UNC delayed the inevitable until the second half, when it forced its third turnover on Duke’s first drive and then took a 35-7 lead on a 1-yard run from Logan.

It was early in the third quarter, still plenty of time left, but the aisles at Wallace Wade Stadium began to fill. The stands began to empty. By the end, only the visitor’s section remained full. UNC fans had waited a while to see something like this.

Where had this team been all season? Where had this version of Logan been, before about six days ago?

He ran for a season-high 92 yards in UNC’s come-from-behind victory against Pitt on Saturday, and then on Thursday finished with 116 yards – the first UNC running back this season to run for 100 yards. The Tar Heels finished with 316 yards rushing – their most since a 2012 victory at Miami.

Then there was the defense. Incompetent and ineffective for most of the season, UNC’s defense – thanks to its ability to force turnovers – was a primary reason the Tar Heels held a three-touchdown lead early in the second quarter.

How good were the Tar Heels on Thursday night? How much was it their night?

So much that they even made a field goal. A 30-yarder – their longest of the season – from Thomas Moore in the third quarter. It was that kind of game – one in which everything, or nearly everything, went right for UNC, and one that showed what might have been.

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