In considering the inevitability that Carolina would someday lose again in Duke's Wallace Wade Stadium, remember that of the two eldest Tar Heels on the 2012 roster, Sylvester Williams was two days old and Devon Ramsay was two weeks from being born on Nov. 21, 1988. That was a chilly, misty afternoon when Duke scored in the last minute to edge the Tar Heels 35-29, the Blue Devils in the second year of Steve Spurrier's three-year run as Duke's head coach and the Tar Heels in the first season of Mack Brown's decade-long tenure in Chapel Hill.
Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev had earlier that year initiated perestroika. A gallon of gas cost just over a buck, a 30-year fixed rate mortgage went for 10.5 percent. Bobby McFerrin topped the Billboard charts that fall with a sappy tune called Don't Worry Be Happy. Bill Cosby and Roseanne Barr had the hot TV shows, and Mike Ditka of Da Bears was NFL Coach of the Year. Larry Fedora was an assistant high school coach in Garland, Texas. The parents of some of today's Tar Heels had not yet even met.
And the Tar Heels also lost to Wake Forest and N.C. State in 1988. Bad things happen every generation or so.
Of course, that doesn't make it any easier today for Fedora and the Tar Heels as they massage their wounds from a 33-30 loss to Duke Saturday night in frenetic Wade Stadium. The Victory Bell has resided securely in Chapel Hill for 21 of the last 22 years--the exception being after Duke's 30-22 win in Kenan Stadium in 2003. The Blue Devils carried cans of royal blue paint to Kenan Stadium in 2007, hoping/planning to reclaim the bell over a 3-8 Tar Heel squad, but a potential game-winning field goal sailed wide by mere inches, leaving the bell in Kenan Field House.
But after Duke's Jamison Crowder snared a fourth-down pass between Tar Heels Tim Scott and Kevin Reddick for the winning touchdown with 13 seconds to play Saturday night, the Blue Devils charged across the field to the southeast corner of the stadium, where the bell sat in front of the Tar Heel cheering section. They rolled it to the center of the field, where it was engulfed in a sea of Duke players and students in a victory celebration worthy of Cameron Indoor Stadium.
"It hurts, especially for the seniors," said Tar Heel running back Gio Bernard, whose recovery of an Erik Highsmith fumble and subsequent four-yard TD run would have been a "Plays of Eternity" nominee had the Tar Heels won the game. "The seniors don't have another chance to get that bell back. I know for a fact, me and the guys in my class are going to make sure we get that bell back next year."
"I want it to hurt," Tar Heel coach Larry Fedora said when asked about processing the loss and moving on to next week's showdown with N.C. State. "I want to feel miserable right now, I want our players to feel miserable right now."
The prevailing line of questioning to Fedora and the Tar Heels following the loss, Carolina's first after four straight wins, concerned their energy and intensity levels, particularly early in the game when three offensive thrusts into the red zone were limited to Casey Barth field goals and when the defense allowed Duke to score on four of five first-half possessions. Duke's 20-6 lead at intermission was reminiscent, though to not quite an extreme, of the hole Carolina dug itself against Louisville back in September.
"I thought our energy level was fine," Fedora said. "I thought the way we approached the game was good. I didn't sense that there was any type of letdown or anything. I thought our guys approached the game the right way. I thought they went out there and played hard. We just did not execute anything."
It was perhaps not as much a case of the Tar Heels' focus and emotion being slack as it was Duke having higher stakes than usual and doing so in front of an energetic home crowd. The Carolina-Duke game throughout this imbalance of two dozen years has languished as the caboose of the schedule, frequently with Duke bringing one or two wins into the game and having no chance at a bowl berth. Once college teams began playing a 12th game in 2006, the game was pushed back to the Saturday after Thanksgiving, leaving Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe to lament that so many out-of-state Duke students were at home in 2008 and 2010 when Carolina came to Durham. Duke's administration joined Carolina's in telling the scheduling officials in the ACC office that it was no longer important to play this game at the end of the year, so this year it fell into the middle of the schedule.
"I'm looking forward to hearing a lot of noise from our students," Cutcliffe said last week. "Some of them will be seeing their first Carolina game."
Carolina fans have always infiltrated Wade Stadium in sizeable numbers, with Tar Heel touchdowns frequently met with as many decibels as Duke points. But a piercing roar when Duke QB Sean Renfree hit tight end David Reeves for 20 yards on third-down on Duke's first possession threw down the gauntlet that this would be a serious football environment on a crisp October night.
"An incredible atmosphere in Wallace Wade," Cutcliffe said. "All the Duke fans who came--thank you, thank you, thank you. All the Duke students who came--thank you. I think they found out it could be fun."
The Tar Heels had no fun of their own for three quarters. The offense was limited to one big play--a 39-yard screen to Bernard on their first possession-and the defense was exploited by the Blue Devils along the ground, much as Miami found abundant daylight running the ball a week ago. A pass-happy Duke offense renowned since the Ben Bennett days of the early 1980s and the Dave Brown era of the late 1980s turned into an old-school power outfit Saturday night. Duke gained 234 yards on the ground and controlled the clock for 33:39.
"We had too many mental mistakes, guys were thinking too much," Bernard said of the offense's struggles. "You've got to be able to click, and I don't think we were clicking early. It's happened before, against Louisville and Wake Forest, we got into it too late."
"They did an awesome job today trying to run on us," Reddick offered from the defensive side. "We just didn't make the right fits as a defense. They cut it back on us a lot. Either a safety or a corner or a linebacker, somebody had to be there on the backside. I was sure they were going to try to run on us because Miami ran on us. I'm sure that was a goal. Once they established that, they just kept on running and didn't worry too much about the pass."
The most serious problem facing the Tar Heels for their last four games of 2012 and beyond is rebuilding a defensive front that can lead the way in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. Carolina at this point has only one serious beast among its four down linemen, that being Sly Williams, but he can be neutralized to some degree with double-teams if an opposing offensive coordinator is not rattled by anyone else. Starting tackle Tim Jackson left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury, not to return, leaving a rotation of Williams and unproven players like Shawn Underwood, Ethan Farmer and Devonte Brown to plug the middle.
Consider this random selection of Tar Heel starting defensive lines for other games at Duke over the last two decades:
1994 (a 41-40 Tar Heel win)--Oscar Sturgis, Greg Black, Riddick Parker and Marcus Jones.
1996 (Tar Heels, 27-10)--Greg Ellis, Vonnie Holliday, Rick Terry and Mike Pringley.
2000 (Tar Heels, 59-21)--Julius Peppers, Ryan Sims, Anthony Perkins and Ross McAlister.
2008 (Tar Heels, 28-20)--E.J. Wilson, Cam Thomas, Tydreke Powell and Robert Quinn, with Marvin Austin coming in off the bench.
Next to recruiting good quarterbacks, signing and developing a stout defensive line sits atop the priority list in building a quality program. The challenge for the Tar Heel staff is to bring along the players already in the program and add to the talent base through recruiting. Hopefully those efforts will have borne sufficient fruit when Carolina returns to Wallace Wade Stadium in 2014.
Meanwhile, it's on to N.C. State on Saturday in Kenan Stadium. One streak ends in Durham, much to the Tar Heels' chagrin. Now the opportunity is there to halt another streak--the Wolfpack's run of five straight since 2007.
Lee Pace (Carolina 1979), has written "Extra Points" since 1990 and reported from the sideline for the Tar Heel Sports Network since 2004.