ACC Football: North Carolina 37, Duke 21
By Aaron Beard
CHAPEL HILL — Everett Withers headed into the tunnel with a triumphant wave to the fans. If this was his last game at Kenan Stadium, North Carolina’s interim coach will go out with a game ball from his players and the program’s latest win against a nearby rival.
Dwight Jones had three touchdown catches while redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard ran for a season-high 165 yards and a score to help North Carolina beat Duke 37-21 on Saturday.
Jones finished with 10 catches for 101 yards to set a school single-season record for receptions, while Bernard had a season-high 30 carries and finished with 222 total yards to lead the Tar Heels (7-5, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference). Bryn Renner also threw for 274 yards and tied a school single-season record for TD passes, helping UNC beat the Blue Devils (3-9, 1-7) for the eighth straight year.
With the win, North Carolina can look forward to a likely bowl game and a chance to match its 8-5 record of each of the previous three seasons. The past two have been under the shadow of an NCAA investigation, which led to the firing of Butch Davis just before training camp and Withers’ promotion from defensive coordinator to first-time head coach.
“These kids are tough mentally and physically,” Withers said. “They mean an awful lot to me. They’re resilient, they work their butt off every day and they try to do everything we ask them to do.”
Withers wouldn’t talk in recent days about whether he thought it would be his final game in Kenan, saying only that he believed he was a candidate for the permanent job. As he headed to the end zone to join his players following this win, he stopped to shake hands with new athletic director Bubba Cunningham — the man who will choose UNC’s next coach — and hug Dick Baddour, Cunningham’s predecessor who assigned Withers the task of leading the troubled program.
“It’s been a blast, it really has,” Withers said. “I didn’t know how they would react initially. They just kind of came to work (in training camp). … As coaches, we had to respond because they did. I’m as proud of this football team as any I’ve ever been on.”
Afterward, Renner presented Withers with a game ball in the locker room.
“He’s done an amazing, amazing job this year keeping all this adversity out of here,” Bernard said. “He stepped into a pretty tough spot and he did an amazing job.”
Regardless of Withers’ future, he at least extended the Tar Heels’ recent dominance against the Blue Devils and kept the Victory Bell in Chapel Hill.
North Carolina also capitalized on four turnovers, getting a pair of field goals and Jones’ 8-yard scoring catch midway through the fourth quarter following those miscues.
Sean Renfree threw a pair of touchdown passes for Duke, though coach David Cutcliffe went with mobile backup Anthony Boone for most of the second half after Renfree took a hard hit on a 45-yard TD throw to Jamison Crowder just before halftime.
“We knew what exactly we had to do coming in and we really did none of those things,” Cutcliffe said. “We played hard. We play hard every week, but penalties and turnovers and giving up explosive third-down plays (hurt). … They just did it to us in every area we figured we’d have to do well in to win the game.”
North Carolina had won 20 of 21 meetings and managed a 100-yard rusher in six of the last seven meetings, an indication of its physical edge in the rivalry. This one fit right in, with Bernard cracking the 100-yard mark in the first half and bursting up the middle for a 48-yard sprint to the end zone early in the second quarter.
Renfree found Juwan Thompson for a 70-yard touchdown pass on a perfectly called route out of the backfield in the first quarter, then hit Crowder for the 45-yard score late in the first half while taking a late hit from Zach Brown that cut UNC’s lead to 20-14 at halftime. But Duke went three-and-out on the first drive of the second half and Renfree fumbled on a blindside sack to end the second drive.
Cutcliffe said Renfree had numbness and swelling in his right hand in the second half, prompting the switch to Boone.
Boone led a third-quarter touchdown drive that ended with his 11-yard pass to Donovan Varner and cut North Carolina’s lead to 23-21 late in the third. But the Tar Heels answered when Renner found Jones for an 18-yard TD grab — Jones hauled it in with his left hand — to make it a two-possession game. Then, after Boone threw an interception, Renner directed a 91-yard drive that took 61/2 minutes off the clock before he found Jones for the 8-yard score that made it 37-21 with 8:17 left.
Duke closed the year with seven straight losses.
The Associated Press