Flashback: Shootout at Wallace Wade
One of the best games in any sport that I’ve ever seen was Carolina-Duke. And yes, it was football.
In advance of tomorrow night’s 7 p.m. showdown between two of the Coastal Division leaders (really, you can look it up), there’s been much discussion of how unusual it is to have a meaningful game between the two rivals. That’s true. Over the last 25 years, the battle for the Victory Bell has largely been nothing but a footnote to the college football season.
The one exception, though, was perhaps the most exciting game in the history of the rivalry and one of the best games ever played in the Triangle.
The last time Carolina and Duke met with winning ACC records was 1994 at Wallace Wade Stadium. It was the season finale, and the Blue Devils thought a win might propel them into the Gator Bowl, while the Tar Heels thought a victory could send them to a second straight Peach Bowl (in those days, kids, we had the Bowl Coalition, a convoluted system of bowl selection in which politics and polls played a big role in which teams went to a certain bowl, which of course seems silly in the modern era when we have…oh wait, never mind).
Carolina featured Mike Thomas at quarterback, one of the greatest nicknames of all time at wide receiver in Marcus “Super Gnat” Wall, and the Johnson and Johnson backfield of Curtis and Leon. Mack Brown was on the sideline, resplendent in his Apex One sideline gear (Yes, we thought this and this were cool. Look, at this point "Another Night" by Real McCoy was one of the top five songs in America, so we weren't exactly known for our taste).
Wallace Wade was beyond packed. Official attendance was 40,103, which even today stands as Duke’s biggest crowd since 1989, and the second-biggest home attendance for the Blue Devils in the program’s past 200 home games, a span that stretches all the way back to 1975.
I went with my dad and my best friend Matt Woodard, and we saw a shootout. Duke went up 38-34 with 2:47 remaining on a touchdown pass to Corey Thomas, and then Super Gnat had an uncharacteristically bad kickoff return that put the Tar Heels on their own 15-yard-line with no timeouts. It was one of the ultimate rarities—Carolina on the road in Durham, trailing in the game and facing a hostile crowd. I remember my father turning to me and saying, “It’s going to be a mess getting out of here.”
Right about that time, Thomas hit Octavus Barnes over the middle on a curl route. Then, something remarkable happened—Barnes outran two Blue Devils, both of whom had an angle on him, and took the ball 71 yards for a touchdown. You should watch the highlights on the ACC Vault (the link is below). It’s a stunning reminder of just how fast the pre-ACL tear Barnes (he tore it in the 1995 Carquest Bowl against Arkansas) could run.
And that wasn’t even close to being it. There was still 2:01 left, so the Tar Heels had left way too much time on the clock. All of us—who spent the entire fourth quarter standing, sometimes on the tops of Wallace Wade’s metal bleachers—knew it. You don’t win an Arena Football game, which this essentially was, with two minutes left.
Sure enough, Duke zipped right back down the field, aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the Carolina celebration, when players were showered by plastic stadium cups in the end zone by unhappy Blue Devil fans. It took them just two plays to move inside the Carolina 30. With 1:35 left and Duke needing only a field goal to take the lead and potentially win the game, the Fred Goldsmith-coached Devils were still passing. That’s when Eddie Mason timed his hit perfectly and separated a Duke receiver from the ball, sending the football sky-high into the air.
The impossibly perfectly named Fuzzy Lee circled under it and hauled in the interception as he was backpedaling. The ball seemed to stay in the air forever. In the stands, we thought it was a sure interception. But then Fuzzy seemed unsure, and it looked like the ball might drop to the turf. When he caught it, the game seemed safe. Woodard and I high-fived and we might have even waved goodbye to the record Duke crowd, since of course we were young and immature and would never do something like that today, such as singing "Rocky Top" at top volume after the 2010 Music City Bowl.
As you've probably figured out by now, the game wasn't safe. Not just yet.
The Tar Heels went three-and-out, and then Brown chose to take a safety on the ensuing punt to avoid a potentially disastrous block (in those days, taking an intentional safety was often a moral victory for Carolina special teams, which were not always stellar under Brown). That made it 41-40, and Carolina free kicked to Duke with 15 seconds remaining.
Remember: all of this happened in the final three minutes of the game. We haven’t even talked about the 65 points scored prior to that.
The Blue Devils, of course, weren’t finished. One pass play put them inside the UNC 45, where they chose to set up for a 60-yard field goal. That might seem far-fetched today, but keep in mind that Carolina had just lost a game to NC State in 1990 on a 56-yard field goal at Kenan Stadium.
However, Duke’s kicker, Tom Cochran, hooked it left, and the Tar Heels survived.
“I don’t think I’ve been in anything as wild as this,” Fred Goldsmith said.
“That was as good a college football game as you would ever want to see,” Mack Brown said. “There were two great teams out there today who played with a lot of heart and desire and effort.”
Duke went on to lose the Hall of Fame Bowl—on New Year’s Day—34-20 to Wisconsin. Carolina went to the Sun Bowl and lost a 35-31 shootout to Texas. The season-ending defensive struggles foreshadowed a change in Brown’s defensive philosophy that would ultimately lead to two of Carolina’s best teams of the modern era in 1996 and 1997.
You owe it to yourself to shut the office door and at least watch a few highlights of the 1994 game on the ACC Vault. And don’t be afraid to wear your old Apex One gear to Wallace Wade tomorrow.