As soon as Duke's Sydney Sarmiento recovered the ball on that frantic last play, as soon as the game was over, the Blue Devil players began sprinting toward the visiting sideline, toward that icon of this rivalry. "They're coming for the bell!" an ACC Network official said. And they did. The Victory Bell that had been a staple of the Tar Heel locker room for eight straight years resides in Durham now, its base painted a darker shade of blue.
Saturday night at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke thoroughly outplayed the Tar Heels to end an eight-year losing streak in the rivalry and become bowl-eligible. The Blue Devils were able to move the ball seemingly at will, not punting until the second half (and then only twice for the game). The Tar Heels, meanwhile, seemed to either go three and out or settle for field goals. In their two prior losses, at Wake Forest and at Louisville, slow starts doomed the Tar Heels. So too it was on Saturday. "I don't think we were clicking in the early beginnings," Giovani Bernard said.
Carolina's first-half drives ended like this: field goal, punt, fumble, field goal, punt, punt. Duke's? Touchdown, field goal, field goal, interception, touchdown, end of half. Tre Boston's pick came at the Carolina 7, when Duke was threatening to build on a 13-3 lead.
It wasn't until the fourth quarter that the Tar Heels were able to orchestrate a touchdown drive, after a big 4th-down stop and a big 4th-down conversion. But then Ross Martin kicked a 43-yard field goal, the longest of his career, to keep a two-score separation between the teams.
Late in the game, Carolina finally began to string some plays together. Bryn Renner's touchdown pass to Sean Tapley made it a three-point game, and then Giovani Bernard's fumble recovery for a score, a play that was so, well, so Gio, gave the Tar Heels the lead. But Duke did what they'd done all game, kill the Tar Heels on third down, to go 87 yards for the win. The Blue Devils converted three third downs and one fourth, the touchdown from Sean Renfree to Jameson Crowder.
It's easier to watch film after a win. Even after committing 15 penalties in back to back weeks, the Tar Heels won over Virginia Tech and at Miami, so their missteps didn't cost them the game. When the team watches film on Sunday, the missed assignments and the missed reads will be all the more glaring. Gio's miracle could have led off SportsCenter had the Tar Heels finished the job. It will be all but forgotten. Carolina lost, and now must find out why.
"Duke outplayed us. They outplayed us, they out-executed us in every phase of the game, and they won the game, and they were the better team tonight," Larry Fedora said afterward. "That’s all there was to it."
All week long, Fedora had praised David Cutcliffe's motivating his team, saying that he had the Blue Devils believing: believing they could win football games, believing they could become bowl-eligible, and believing they could recapture the bell. And they did. Carolina, meanwhile, is left with an empty feeling, and not just because of the vacancy in the locker room.
"I want them to remember what this feels like," Fedora said. "I want them to know. I want this feeling to last all night, you know, and it’ll last until we put it to bed tomorrow and put it behind us. I want them to know what it feels like. I want there to be some misery right now. It better mean that much to you. We’ll put it to bed tomorrow night, and then we’ll move on after that."
If you didn't care who won, you would have had to appreciate the joy on the Duke players' faces as they reclaimed the Victory Bell, and the relief that came with ending a streak of futility. No current Duke player had ever beaten Carolina before Saturday night. The band played, the fans rushed the field, and the party continued well into the night. They'd accomplished their mission; the streak was over.
The visitor's locker room, meanwhile, was silent and somber. There's that 24-hour rule in football: win or lose, you get 24 hours to either revel or dwell. Then, you learn from it and move on. You get the feeling that the disappointment from Saturday will linger. Still, that feeling that comes with beating your rival after years of frustration? Soon enough, Carolina will have a chance to know what that feels like.Turner Walston is the managing editor of Tar Heel Monthly
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