The Duke players didn’t carry David Cutcliffe off on their shoulders like they did the last time they won at Kenan Stadium, but that was on a cold evening at the end of the season with the Coastal Division title secure.
This was a warm afternoon in September, with Cutcliffe exiting the field alone long after his players already had the Victory Bell in their locker room, and yet for both Duke and North Carolina this result could end up being just as meaningful as if it had been played at or near the end.
The two seasons may very well end up being defined by this result, a game that turned on a five-minute blip late in the fourth quarter that saw the Blue Devils turn a four-point deficit into a 27-17 win. Duke is 4-0, not only with the bell to ring for months but every reason to believe last season was an aberration. North Carolina, hit with an unabated wave of injuries and another fourth-quarter lead squandered, now faces very difficult math just to get to a bowl game.
These were high stakes for September, and two plays in the fourth quarter will reverberate for months, if not longer.
With Duke down 17-13 and unable to get much of anything going against a surprisingly resolute North Carolina defense – the frequently maligned secondary in particular – Daniel Jones lofted a pass toward T.J. Rahming into double coverage down the right sideline. Rahming wasn’t really open, which was typical since the Tar Heels had allowed the Blue Devils very few openings down the field. But Jones threw it anyway.
Later, Cutcliffe would shrug. “There’s a time to take a shot,” he said. And with the Blue Devils desperately needing a big play of any kind, this was the time. One North Carolina defender turned the wrong way. Rahming outjumped Miles Dorn for the ball and a 45-yard gain. Seven plays later, Shaun Wilson punched it in for the Blue Devils.
On the ensuing possession, Chazz Surratt had the Tar Heels driving, as he often had on the day. The North Carolina quarterback was going to be the center of attention no matter what actually happened, since he committed to Duke before switching to UNC, but he was a dangerous threat both running and throwing. Almost all of the Tar Heels’ offense came on a few big plays, either Surratt scrambles or deep balls.
Surratt had gotten North Carolina across midfield when his protection broke down under pressure from Duke’s dominant defensive line. The redshirt freshman, so composed to that point, made a redshirt freshman mistake. He tried to force the ball over the middle with a two-handed overhead pass. Bryon Fields, the latest in a long line of playmaking Duke defensive backs in the Cutcliffe era, plucked the wobbling ball out of the air and ran it all the way back for, essentially, the win.
From those two plays, five minutes apart, two seasons are now headed two different directions.
The 1-3 Tar Heels have now lost all three games so far against Power 5 opponents and there are mostly difficult games ahead. Their bowl eligibility could very well come down to the final game of the season at N.C. State, which after Saturday’s win at Florida State could have even more on the line at that point.
That’s if North Carolina has any players left. Already dealing with an injury list so long it needed a table of contents, index and footnotes, with nine players out for the year before you even get to the doubtfuls and questionables, the Tar Heels will now have to release an updated second edition. In this game alone they lost Austin Proehl, Rontavaious Groves and Tyler Powell with gruesome-looking injuries. You can reach for a common thread – the re-sodding of Kenan before each home game? The new Jumpman football cleats? – but none of them hold up under examination.
“We’ve got to find a way to get it done,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “There’s no excuse. Nobody really cares about your issues, or your problems. You’ve got to find a way to get it done. So that’s what we’ll do.”
Cutcliffe knows the feeling. Injuries helped submarine the Blue Devils last season, although he said Saturday it wasn’t so much the injuries as how his team failed to deal with them. Everything about that 4-8 season is just a bad memory now, and the Blue Devils will spend the rest of the season ringing their bell and hoping for more.
“We had this one circled, rivalry game, we were looking forward to it,” Fields said. “We knew it was going to be a lot of fun. It’s out of the way now. Back to business.”
It’s only September, but it’s hard not to feel like both seasons have been, if not defined by this result, then set in definite directions. The game may have been played earlier than usual, but it seemed no less decisive than it so often is.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock