By Peter Koutroumpis
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the end, the Duke Blue Devils wheeled the Victory Bell back to Durham.
The Duke Blue Devils won the 104th gridiron edition of the Battle of the Blues against the UNC Tar Heels, 27-17, at Keenan Stadium on Saturday.
It was another closely-contested match-up between the two programs with Duke quarterback Daniel Jones (18-34, 202 yards, 1 TD) and UNC’s Chazz Surratt (17-32, 259 yards, 1 TD) working their offenses to outpace each other.
Leading Duke to only its second 4-0 start to the season since 1994, Jones put together a productive performance, despite being sacked three times by UNC which fell to 1-3 overall.
Placekicker Austin Parker helped by converting on 2-of-3 field goal attempts.
While it looked like Duke defensive stops would dominate and make the difference, sacking Surratt four times and intercepting him once, it was explosive offensive plays by the Tar Heels that kept them in this one.
Entering the game, Duke led the ACC and ranked second nationally in third-down conversion defense (.118) and suffocated UNC’s offense early on.
While the Tar Heels only converted 1-of-7 third downs in the opening quarters – 3-of-16 on the day – they pulled even with the Blue Devils 10-10 by halftime.
Pace, patience, and explosiveness
North Carolina took a 3-0 lead late in the first quarter as a result of a Freeman Jones field goal.
Davis Koppenhaver’s 28-yard reception soon gave the Blue Devils their first lead of the game.
While Parker’s first attempt from 27 yards made it through the uprights to extend the Blue Devils’ lead, a subsequent blocked 34-yard field-goal attempt provided UNC the momentum it needed to pull even.
A 45-yard Anthony Ratliff-Williams reception from Surratt with nine seconds remaining wiped away Duke’s efforts to grind the UNC defense down at the half.
Maximizing opportunities, minimizing mistakes
Parker’s second field goal put Duke ahead again, but an explosive rush from Surratt along a seam up the left-middle of the field, put the Tar Heels ahead 17-13 with 5:41 to play in the third.
While both sides traded possessions early in the final period, Jones remained diligent and eventually guided the Blue Devils to the UNC one-yard line before Shawn Wilson (56 yards, 18 carries) punched through the Tar Heels defense for the score.
Surratt then went to work with Duke leading 20-17 and 6:09 remaining.
He found Ratliff-Williams open again and connected with a 24-yard strike to hime that put the Tar Heels on the Duke 42-yard line.
With Ratliff-Williams eventually finishing with 125 receiving yards on the day, and looking to execute another explosive play against the Duke defense, Surratt succumbed to the Blue Devils’ pressure and lofted a pass attempt that landed in the hands of Bryon Fields, Jr.
The final dagger
It was a pivotal turnover that decided the game as the cornerback ran the ball 61 yards and extended the Duke lead to 27-17.
Even with four minutes remaining, North Carolina couldn’t overcome the final defensive stand that Duke put up.
The Blue Devils finalized their first ACC win of the season, and beat the Tar Heels for the second year in a row, and fourth time in the last six years.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe
“A lot of really good things happened on that field. And we weren’t the only ones doing it. I thought North Carolina played really well. I thought Duke played really well. When two teams play like that some of the things you are going to ask me about well, you gave up explosive plays on defense. You had trouble in the red zone. They had their problems with their defense and our offense. It was that kind of football game to win in the fourth quarter. Third down and fourth – down defense and offense proved to be a big part of the day and without that we probably wouldn’t have won. There were some timely runs. It was a slugfest of a football game.”
UNC head coach Larry Fedora
“The first thing I want to do is give Duke credit. They played a heck of a game. They played error-free. They played hard. Our team played hard, there’s no doubt about the effort that was out there on the field. They made more plays than we did and we’re in a position to win a football game in the fourth quarter and we didn’t finish, and that’s happened to us three times. Everybody understands that’s my responsibility. We’re up in the fourth, I’ve got to find a way to get this team to finish.
“We talked hard about finishing; we worked this week on knowing that we’ve been ahead in all these games; it wasn’t a lack of effort. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make in the fourth quarter, and they did.”
Peter Koutroumpis, 401-323-8960, @pksport