CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina and Duke came into their annual showdown with two of the top four offenses in the ACC. The two rivals then proceeded to engage in a defensive slugfest for much of the afternoon.
“It was like a boxing match,” said UNC coach Mack Brown. “You hit each other in the mouth for three and a half hours until somebody gives in. It’s like military taking land, it’s about possession of territory. It’s about knocking people down. It’s about knocking people out.”
Duke’s first seven drives ended in six punts and a fumble, while Carolina punted on seven of its first 10. In the end, UNC’s offense was able to make the big plays and won its third straight Victory Bell game over the Blue Devils, 38-7.
Both teams exchanged punts on the first four possessions before Carolina finally hit on a big play in the waning seconds of the first quarter. Quarterback Sam Howell found running back Ty Chandler on the right sideline for a short pass. Chandler eluded a tackler, got a big downfield block from receiver Josh Downs and broke free of a diving attempt at an ankle tackle to go 75 yards for the game’s first touchdown.
On the ensuing Duke possession, defensive lineman Kevin Hester knocked the ball out of quarterback Gunnar Holmberg’s hand as he was about to pass. Defensive back Trey Morrison scooped it up and ran 63 yards for a touchdown, and in just over a minute and a half, Carolina had turned a scoreless game into a 14-0 lead.
Morrison’s play was a turning point for the team.
“I think this team has been playing with pressure,” Brown said. “We’ve let people down, we didn’t accomplish what we were supposed to in preseason. We’re trying to continue to build confidence, and confidence is a powerful thing. Confidence allows you to be tough. Confidence allows you to make plays that you might not be able to make otherwise.”
The Tar Heel defense had a big day, sacking Duke five times, getting nine tackles for loss and six quarterback hits.
“We played our best defense of the year,” Brown said, “maybe the best since we’ve been here.”
Holmberg finished the day 17 of 24 for 184 yards, an 80-yard touchdown to Jalon Calhoun to start the second half, and an interception. Running back Mataeo Durant rushed for 114 yards, and Calhoun finished with six catches for 103 yards, but Duke couldn’t overcome turnovers and penalties to hang with Carolina.
The Blue Devils were penalized on the game’s opening kickoff, had the entire offensive line jump to wipe out a fourth-and-short attempt and force a punt, and finished with seven flags for 55 yards.
“We had some good football that we played,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “But the inconsistencies, the penalties, the turnovers, the assignment issues. … When you have a disciplined football team, that’s in everything that you do every day. … We carried the fight to them to start this football game, but it is not enough when you stop yourselves and go backwards.”
Howell finished with his fourth straight 300-yard game, completing 18 of 32 for 321 and three scores. He had a 63-yard touchdown pass to Downs, who finished with 168 yards.
The Tar Heels remain home the next two weeks with games against FSU and Miami. Duke hosts Georgia Tech next week.