No more rabbits left in Tar Heels hat as late comeback at Duke fizzles

Instead of leading his team triumphantly down the field as had had against Pitt and Florida State, UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky threw an interception, dooming the Tar Heels to a 28-27 loss to archrival Duke on Thursday

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) is sacked by Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys (34) during the first half of the NCAA college football game on Thursday

DURHAM — The North Carolina football team may have been pinned back at its own 6-yard line with less than two minutes remaining Thursday. But given its history this season, it still had to like its chances of getting the field goal it needed to steal a victory from archrival Duke. “There was no doubt in my mind we were going to go down and score,” coach Larry Fedora said. His confidence was more than just blind faith. Fedora’s Tar Heels had already pulled a rabbit out of its hat twice this season, in consecutive weeks, to rally for dramatic last second victories against Pittsburgh and Florida State — the latter on a 54-yard field goal as time expired. This time, though, UNC ran out of comeback magic. Instead of leading his team triumphantly down the field, quarterback Mitch Trubisky turned the ball over, dooming the Tar Heels to a 28-27 loss at Wallace Wade Stadium and ending any realistic hopes of their repeating as ACC Coastal Division champs. The drive-killing interception was the second of the game for Trubisky, matching his total for the rest of the season combined. It came on a deep ball across the middle just one play after the junior quarterback seemed to have given UNC some momentum by scrambling for a first down. The pass was so forced and off target, despite Trubisky having plenty of time to survey his options, that it appeared as though Duke defensive back Alonzo Saxton had called for a fair catch when he picked it off. “The first two or three initial reads weren’t open,” Trubisky said. “I tried to work the scramble drill, thought someone was breaking back to me and just let go of it when I shouldn’t have.” The late interception was the final straw in a frustrating game for the normally efficient Trubisky. After leading his to touchdowns on the game’s first two possessions and a quick 14-0 lead, the UNC quarterback struggled to find and hit open receivers against an inspired Blue Devils defense. He was also plagued by several drops, including one on third down by Austin Proehl that ended a potential scoring drive late in the first half. Trubisky finished the game at 24 of 33 for 297 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. Only nine of those completions and 87 of the yards, however, in the second half. Considering how well the game started for the Tar Heels, running back Elijah Hood said his team should never have been in the position of needing another miracle late drive. “It’s unfortunate, surprising in that it happened,” Hood said. “We let it happen. We’ve got to do better than that. We started fast and then we kind of ran stagnant offensively.” Part of that was self-inflicted, but Duke also had a hand in the Tar Heels’ offensive misfortune. “Mitch Trubisky is on his game this year and the receivers have been also,” Blue Devils linebacker Joe Giles-Harris said. “We tried to take away the run game and make him throw. We tried to get in his head and rattle him as best we could.” They succeeded like no one, with the possible exception of Virginia Tech and Hurricane Matthew, has. That was especially true on third down, where the Tar Heels converted only four of 10 opportunities. They came into the game leading the ACC in third down efficiency. “We just didn’t make any plays,” Fedora said. “Every time we’d make a play we’d shoot ourselves in the foot on the next one or something would happen. There was no consistency whatsoever. We need to play much better offensively to have success than what we had tonight.” UNC’s problems weren’t limited to just the offense, though. “We need to play better on defense,” Fedora said. “I can’t say that either phase played well enough to win”