There are fewer trivial things in life that upset me more than losing to Duke. In any sport, really, but it’s been particularly painful in football.
It's why I felt a glorious mix of anxiety and excitement as the Marching Tar Heels hopped off buses and walked into Wallace Wade Stadium for our final road game of the season. It'd been two years since Carolina football pulled out a win against our archrival. I was begging the football deities for an inspired game from the Heels.
As a senior, details of our freshman-year game are beginning to fade. UNC beat the brakes off the Blue Devils in 2015, but the disappointment from our 2016 trip eight miles down the road and dismay from our 2017 home game still feel very fresh. The Victory Bell hasn’t rung in Kenan Stadium in almost three years. If we could get anything out of this rough season of Tar Heel football, would it at least be that bell back in the best shade of blue?
It would not be.
UNC fell to 1-8 on the season after losing to Duke 42-35. The Blue Devils outclassed the Heels in the air with junior quarterback Daniel Jones going 31-of-54 for 361 yards and three touchdowns. Jones also gashed Carolina on the ground, leading the team with 186 rushing yards, most of which came from a handful of 40-yard-plus scrambles.
It was a game like most the Heels have played this season. UNC’s offense was unable to keep up after Duke adjusted their approach after halftime and the defense still bleeding big-yardage plays. Quarterback Nathan Elliott failed to throw deep downfield often and saw numerous dropped balls from receivers the times he did. Carolina gave up 115 yards on 10 penalties too. It felt like nearly every time the Heels made a big play, it was negated by a self-inflicted wound.
The Heels, to their credit, did have some positive moments. They ran the ball well against the Blue Devils, recording four rushing touchdowns in the first half alone. The defense held Duke’s offense in check during the fourth quarter and won the turnover battle with two huge forced fumbles. UNC was essentially a Hail Mary throw away from making things REALLY interesting as time expired.
But ultimately, Carolina's offense still looked cathartic for most of the second half, never scored off any of Duke’s turnovers, and the defense allowed more than 600 total yards. UNC’s third down defense was dreadful, with Duke converting of 13-of-20 and scoring half of their touchdowns on third down. It led to the Blue Devils now winning five of their last seven games against the Tar Heels in football, which is their most successful stretch against UNC in decades.
Traveling is still fun no matter the outcome, don't get me wrong. I'll do my best to remember the fun moments, like the hospitality of Duke’s band staff and Rameses having a dance competition with the Blue Devil. (Shoutout to Rameses, by the way. The guy put on an absolute clinic and didn't stop dancing for the entire game. The mascots never get enough recognition of their crowd engagement and performances on the road.)
This one is definitely going to sting, though, perhaps worse than any UNC loss this year. When I think of my last away football game as a Marching Tar Heel, I'm pretty sure the memory will be of Daniel Jones running untouched into the end zone and roars from the crowd dressed in the worst shade of blue.