CHAPEL HILL — UNC quarterback Chazz Surratt took the first snap of Saturday’s game and was met by Duke defensive lineman Mike Ramsay.
The fifth-year senior arrived at almost the same time as the ball. From the other side came end Victor Dimukeje, and Surratt was buried for a six-yard loss.
That play set the stage for what was to come — a rock fight, interrupted briefly by big plays.
“Every game takes on its own personality,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “This one you could tell was going to be somewhat of a slugfest.”
In the end, the Blue Devils made more plays and left Chapel Hill with a 27-17 victory, custody of the Victory Bell for another year, a 4-0 record and coach David Cutcliffe’s 100th career victory.
“I really wanted to get in his face,” Ramsey said of his game-opening sack, one of four the Blue Devils recorded on the day. They also hit Surratt five times and had 11 tackles for loss. For their part, the Carolina defense had three sacks, four tackles for loss and five quarterback hits.
Both teams’ defenses dominated the line of scrimmage, making yards hard to come by. Of the 144 combined snaps in the game, 51, more than a third, went for negative yards or no gain.
With the defensive play making long drives difficult to maintain, both teams went looking for big plays. A total of 35 plays went for 10 yards or more. North Carolina got 183 of its 377 yards of offense on four plays.
The big hits, including a 45-yard touchdown from Surratt to Anthony Ratliff just before half and a 56-yard run by Surratt in the third quarter, gave Carolina a 17-13 lead with just over nine minutes to play.
That’s when Duke decided to try a big play of its own.
“We had let them kind of play into a box,” Cutcliffe said. “They were the ones making explosives. That’s why they had the lead. We weren’t making explosives. We had some beautiful drives, but it’s very difficult to have those kind of drives. So we decided to take a shot.”
On first down, Daniel Jones threw 45 yards to T.J. Rahming, setting up the Blue Devils at the Carolina 29. A half dozen plays later, running back Shaun Wilson plunged into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown.
“There’s a time to take a shot,” Cutcliffe said. “Particularly when you have a player that you trust. That’s the thing about football. It’s not always going to be schematically perfect. Sometimes players have to make plays.”
On Carolina’s next possession, the Tar Heels drove into Duke territory. Duke’s defensive line harassed Surratt into making a two-handed desperation pass. Cornerback Bryon Fields stepped in front of it and returned it 61 yards for a game-sealing touchdown.
“The Bryon Fields interception — you want to talk about team defense,” Cutcliffe said. “It came from pressure from our people up front. It came from people rallying to the ball. I don’t know if you saw how well he ran with the ball and how his teammates were able to sudden change from defense to offense and have legal, timely blocks.”
It was the second straight week that the Duke defense has returned an interception for a touchdown to finish off a win.
“Here we are struggling to get it in the end zone on offense,” Cutcliffe said. “Interceptions are great, but the pick six was even better.”
The win gives Duke a 4-0 record for just the second time since 1994, a 1-0 record in the ACC and a hard-earned boost in confidence after the fourth-quarter comeback against the Heels.
“I’m going to be honest,” Cutcliffe said. “It should (give them confidence). It absolutely should. It is a rival game. It’s a very tough game against an outstanding opponent as well as a rival game. They should all wake up tomorrow looking forward to practice. It should have that effect. The bumps and bruises don’t feel as badly. They really don’t.”