Tar Heels lose their intensity, then lose game to arch-rival Duke

UNC jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead Thursday before taking their foot off the accelerator on the way to a 28-27 loss to Duke that ended any chance it had of winning a second straight Coastal Division title

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
North Carolina safety Donnie Miles (15) reacts after losing to Duke in the NCAA college rivalry football game on Thursday

DURHAM — The North Carolina football team remembered to bring its spray paint for the celebratory postgame redecorating of the Victory Bell on Thursday.Problem is, the Tar Heels forgot to bring along their offensive and defensive execution on the short trip down U.S. 15-501 to the newly refurbished Wallace Wade Stadium. They also lost their motivation and intensity along the way after jumping out to a quick early lead.The result was an unexpected 28-27 loss to archrival Duke that made not only made the Carolina blue paint unnecessary, but also ended any hope UNC might have had of repeating as ACC Coastal Division champs.”We just didn’t do a good job of coming out with energy,” said defensive tackle Nazair Jones, whose unit was burned for 227 rushing yards while allowing the Blue Devils to convert 10 of 17 third down opportunities.”We went up a couple of scores and we let up. That was their last game on their field and they gave it everything they had. We didn’t match their intensity and that’s why they won the game.”The frustration in Jones’ voice spoke to the opportunity the Tar Heels wasted in a game they entered as an 11-point favorite. The loss snapped a nine-game winning streak in true road games, the third-longest active streak in the nation behind only Alabama and Oklahoma.What made the result doubly difficult to stomach is that they were warned about the possibility of a letdown only hours before taking the field for their battle with the injury-riddled Blue Devils.”(Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik) told us if we didn’t come out and play like were were supposed to, this was going to happen,” Jones said. “He told us today at noon. I definitely didn’t expect this to happen.”Jones and his teammates on both sides of the ball may have gotten caught with their guard down because things came too easy for them during the opening 12 minutes of the game.The defense got easy stops on Duke’s possession and the offense, building on a season-best performance five days earlier in a lopsided win against Georgia Tech, picked up right where it left off with a pair of precision scoring drives.When quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw touchdown passes to Thomas Jackson and Bug Howard to build a 14-0 lead, it appeared as though the Tar Heels might be headed toward another rout similar to the 66-31 hurting it put on Duke a year ago.But then almost inexplicably, they took their foot off the accelerator.”Human nature sometimes, when you score (so easily), you’ve got to worry about that happening,” coach Larry Fedora said afterward. “Maybe that’s what happened to our guys. But that’s on me. That’s my responsibility.”UNC’s grasp on the game began to slip early in the second quarter when Duke quarterback Daniel Jones used his arm and legs to engineer two straight touchdown drives to tie the score at 14. The second one went for 95 yards, matching a similar 96-yard march by the Tar Heels a few minutes earlier.Fedora’s team weathered that storm by jumping back out ahead on a 54-yard scoring strike from Trubisky to tight end Carl Tucker, set up by a beautiful fake of a swing pass to favorite target Ryan Switzer.But things began to unravel in earnest shortly afterward with a series of uncharacteristic and in some cases undisciplined mistakes.A personal foul call on defensive end Dujaun Drennon helped dig Duke out of a second-and-15 hole on a drive that tied the game at 21 just before halftime. Then, with a chance to jump back ahead on the opening drive of the second half, Trubisky was picked off for just the third time all season on a tipped ball by Blue Devil safety Deondre Singleton.UNC could only manage two field goals the rest of the way in an offensive performance that yielded only 142 total yards.”They weren’t doing anything differently,” Trubisky said of Duke’s defensive scheme. “They were changing coverages. Credit to them for mixing it up a lot.”Trubisky, who went 24 of 33 for 297 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions, was at a loss to explain why his offense came to such a screeching halt after such a crisp start.”I don’t know,” he said. “I’m going to have to watch the film. It’s disappointing.”He wasn’t alone in his disappointment. UNC’s defense also had a rough night after the opening two possessions. Not only did it miss several opportunities to intercept its first pass of the season, but it allowed Jones to complete a jump pass for a touchdown at the goal line to put Duke ahead 28-24 late in the third quarter — despite receiver Davis Koppenhaver being surrounded by three defenders.As damaging as that go-ahead score was, the low point of the night came on a drive in which the defense didn’t give up a point.It started at the Duke 1 with 8:39 remaining and ended 6½ minutes later with a punt that pinned the Tar Heels back against their own end zone. In between, the Tar Heels allowed the Blue Devils to execute two big third down conversions.”Some of those third downs, we just didn’t win the one-on-one battles,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “We just have to get off the field.”The final indignity came on what turned out to be the last play of the game, when after Trubisky’s second interception of the night, UNC got caught with 12 men on the field to squander what could have been one final opportunity to pull the game out.”We shot ourselves in the foot,” Stewart said. “We did that multiple times in that game.”Because they did, the Tar Heels (7-3, 5-2 ACC) find themselves in a position of having to refocus their goals as the regular season draws to a close. Virginia Tech would have to lose both of its remaining games and UNC win against NC State for it to have a chance at returning to the ACC Championship Game.That’s a reality the Tar Heels will have to deal with eventually. On this night, though, the most painful hurt came from watching their rivals ring a Victory Bell now painted a darker shade of blue than when the game started.”I absolutely despise Duke, so this loss is absolutely unacceptable,” running back Elijah Hood said. “We definitely have to get (the bell) back next year. We’ll have a lot of motivation for that, for sure.”