Three Things: Duke 33, Carolina 30
1. Because of the frenetic final quarter, it’s unlikely that much attention will be paid to what really cost Carolina the game: a dismal first half. The Tar Heels trailed 20-6 after two quarters and looked listless against an energized Duke squad. Unfortunately, it was reminiscent of the first half against Louisville. And in both games, Carolina put together a much better second-half effort, but was left wondering what might have happened if they’d been more competitive in the first half.
“Our energy level was there,” Larry Fedora told Jones Angell after the game. “I didn’t think that was the problem. I just thought we didn’t execute. That’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
2. David Cutcliffe’s decision to try a fake punt near midfield early in the fourth quarter very nearly cost him the game. It was a bad decision for any number of reasons: it gave a struggling Carolina offense a short field, it was a fairly obvious play on that down and distance and field position and therefore had no element of surprise, and it rejuvenated a fairly stagnant Tar Heel sideline. Cutcliffe won the game, so in the end it didn’t matter. But his bad choice very nearly cost Duke a chance to win its first home game over Carolina since 1988—when the current Blue Devil student body had not yet been born.
3. It’s incredible just how close Carolina football has been to breaking through since the Charlie Justice era…without ever actually doing it. In 2012, the schedule set up perfectly for a run at a division title. The two best teams in the league, Florida State and Clemson, were off the slate.
In mid-October, the Tar Heels had only to beat Duke in order to have a one-game lead on the rest of the division, with the head-to-head tiebreakers over the next three teams in the standings. That’s not an insurmountable lead, but with the nearest contenders still having difficult games left (Virginia Tech and Miami play each other, and the Hokies still have to host Florida State), it was going to put the Tar Heels in one of the best situations since division play began to finish on top of the Coastal.
Instead, the Carolina defense allowed Duke—Duke!—to go 87 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining on an incredible catch between two Tar Heels. What once looked like a chance to earn a division crown and perhaps rub the rest of the league’s nose in it now becomes yet another situation where Carolina needs some help.
The chase for the Coastal gave some intrigue to a bowl-less season that otherwise might have seemed like playing out the string. With that goal now looking much more difficult, the measure of the season—and we all know it’s true—likely becomes next Saturday’s home game against NC State. Win that one, and 2012 has some very redeeming qualities. Lose, to go to 0-3 against the in-state ACC competition, and, well…let’s don’t think about that. It's not fair, it's too simplistic, and it's way too much pressure to put on 60 minutes of football. But it's true. Carolina needs to beat State in a much worse way than Duke needed to beat Carolina. It's going to be a tense seven days waiting for kickoff.