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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The path to victory was not very pretty, but Duke’s 27-17 win over North Carolina has the Blue Devils perfect through the first four weeks of the season.
And though there are some areas of improvement for the Blue Devils, it’s hard to lose sight of David Cutcliffe’s team’s ability to handle adversity thus far in the season.
That adversity has not come in the form of injuries - at least a swath of them, as it did this year - but it has rather in the form of sporadic breakdowns and missed opportunities. The difference from last year’s squad is those breakdowns, namely explosives allowed, haven’t broken the team’s will.
North Carolina, like Baylor, found ways to strike for big chunks of yardage and quick points. The Tar Heels accumulated 377 yards of total offense, 183 of which came on four plays.
But the Blue Devils were able to bounce back, and it was defense that sealed the victory.
“I think in January I told you all I did a poor job of maturing our team (last season),” Cutcliffe said. “A lot of good things happened at Duke that had not happened in a while and I think we handled adversity poorly. This year we went a little old-school and I think it has shown.”
Duke owned the fourth quarter against the Tar Heels. After falling behind 17-13 toward the end of the third quarter when Chazz Surratt broke off a 56-yard touchdown run, the Blue Devils appeared to be reeling from the turn of events.
The mood at Kenan Stadium seemed to be swinging in the Tar Heels favor. The Blue Devils were failing to find the end zone, despite long drives deep into North Carolina territory.
The defense, after dominating most of the game, sans a few plays, suddenly looked to be on its back.
Then things began to change. Duke took over possession with 9:22 on the clock in the fourth quarter, and subsequently took control. The Blue Devils had struggled to connect on explosive plays of their own, but Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper felt it was time to take a shot. Trailing 17-13, Duke did exactly that.
Daniel Jones connected with T.J. Rahming for 45 yards and just like that the Blue Devils deep in North Carolina territory. It clearly gave the Devils a spark, and seven plays later they were in the end zone and regained the lead.
“We felt like we had let them play us into a box,” Cutcliffe said. “They were the ones making the explosives. That’s why they had the lead - we weren’t making explosives. We had some beautiful drives. Very difficult to have those kinds of drives. We decided to take a shot. We felt like with T.J.’s speed he would’ve got on top of the man-to-man defender.”
At that point, Duke led 20-17 and there was a clear feeling that momentum was beginning to swing back in its favor. That feeling began to fadeaway not long after the Tar Heels regained possession.
Surratt seemed poised to lead North Carolina down field and respond. The second play of the drive went for 10 yards on the ground. The third, a 24-yard pass. UNC was certainly going to answer.
That was the feeling for a brief moment, anyway. Then the game completely changed. Surratt was dropped by Joe Giles-Harris for a two yard loss on a first and 10 at Duke’s 42-yard-line. Then he threw an incomplete pass. The next play proved to be the game winner for Duke.
Surratt, who was under duress all game long, was heavily pressured by Duke’s Drew Jordan. The result was a hurried throw that ultimately landed in the hands of Duke’s Bryon Fields, who returned it 61 yards for a pick-6.
The play took shape beautifully for Duke, as Fields found himself accompanied by a wall of blockers. Freshman Michael Carter provided the biggest block of the play, opening up the final 20-plus yards for Fields.
The score put Duke up 27-17 and the life was sucked out of the Tar Heels.
“It was just a coincidence that it was me that made that play - it could’ve been anyone on the defense,” Fields said. “Guys believed in each other and we were able to make a huge play.”
Cutcliffe added to Fields’ comments about the play.
“Bryon Fields interception, you wanna talk about team defense. It came from pressure, from our people upfront. It came from people rallying to the ball. I don’t know if you saw how well he ran the football, but his teammates - you talk about sudden change from defense to offense and legal, timely blocks. Here we are struggling to get it in the end zone on offense - the interception was great, but the pick-6 was even better.”
Offensively, Duke compiled 388 total yards, while converting 7-of-18 third down attempts and 2-of-2 fourth down tries. The ground game came up big for the Blue Devils yet again, with Brittain Brown rushing for 90 yards on 10 carries and Shaun Wilson totaling 56 yards and a score on 18 carries. T.J. Rahming also proved to be big for Duke with 73 yards receiving.
Defensively, it was all about Duke’s line. Mike Ramsay was the leader, posting 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Terrell Lucas and Drew Jordan each posted a sack, while Victor Dimukeje added a half sack. As a team, Duke totaled 11 tackles-for-loss, four sacks and five quarterback hurries.
Overall, the Tar Heels 377 yards of total offense.