College Football: UNC defense ruined Bernard's day
DURHAM – For a while, the most unforgettable play of the North Carolina-Duke game belonged to Gio Bernard. Then a Tar Heels’ defense that ranks among the ACC’s best was gashed one last time by the Blue Devils.
Duke rallied to beat North Carolina 33-30 on Saturday night when Sean Renfree threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder on fourth down with 13 seconds left.
The Tar Heels (5-3, 2-2) erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and took a short-lived lead on Bernard’s touchdown, which came after he scooped up a teammate’s fumble and galloped into the end zone with 3:12 left.
“Honestly, that play doesn’t even matter. We lost the game,” Bernard said. “That one play, that’s just a little something out of the whole game. But we didn’t execute the whole day. We didn’t come out ready to win and we lost the Bell, and it hurts.”
Bernard finished with 143 yards and two touchdowns to lead North Carolina.
But he wound up being upstaged by Renfree, who was 23 of 36 for 276 yards for Duke (6-2, 3-1) while converting three third-and-longs during the game-winning, 87-yard drive.
He led the Blue Devils into the red zone in the final minute, and after Jela Duncan’s 2-yard run on third-and-4, Duke called its final timeout with 19 seconds left. Renfree then rolled and found a leaping Crowder over the middle. He was knocked upside-down but held on for the go-ahead score.
“The main thing that was going through my head was, ‘Just hold on to the ball,'” Crowder said. “And when I realized I still had it, I just wanted to get to the sideline and celebrate with my team.”
Duke snuffed out a series of laterals on the Tar Heels’ final play, giving the Blue Devils possession of the Victory Bell – the traveling trophy awarded to the Duke-UNC winner – for the first time since 2003. The students poured onto the Wallace Wade Stadium field to celebrate Duke’s first home victory in the series since 1998.
“They outplayed us and they out-executed us in every phase of the game,” new North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.
Backup quarterback Anthony Boone and Duncan each had 2-yard scoring runs and Ross Martin kicked four field goals for the Blue Devils, who have their best record through eight games since the 1994 team opened 7-1 on its way to the Hall of Fame Bowl – the school’s most recent postseason appearance.
“Six and two – we haven’t been here in a long time,” cornerback Ross Cockrell said. “We’re going to build upon that.”
Bernard’s second – and most bizarre – touchdown gave North Carolina its first lead since the opening drive. Bryn Renner hit a wide-open Erik Highsmith over the middle for 36 yards to the Duke 24 before Jordon Byas knocked the ball loose.
When it slipped out of Cockrell’s grasp, Bernard gleefully scooped it up and took it in from 4 yards out to make it 30-26 and send the UNC bench into delirium.
“It took a weird bounce. Next thing I know, I look up, he’s getting up, the ball squirted out and he was going for a touchdown,” Cockrell said. “In all my years playing football, I’ve never seen a play like that before. Never in my life. But things happen – it’s UNC-Duke.”
Renner finished 19 of 32 for 198 yards – he was 9 of 13 for 162 in the fourth quarter.
– for North Carolina. An offense that entered averaging 40 points and 486 total yards managed only three Casey Barth field goals through three quarters before reeling off three touchdowns in the fourth.
“As an offense, you’ve just got to be ready to click, and it wasn’t happening in the beginning,” Bernard said. “We kind of went into it too late, and we came out with the ‘L.'”
Its defense was simply carved up by Duke’s previously nondescript rushing attack, with the Blue Devils rolling up 510 total yards and 234 yards rushing – the most ever on the ground by a David Cutcliffe-coached Duke team, and the most allowed this season by a North Carolina defense that entered ranked in the ACC’s top tier in every significant stat category.
Three rushers had at least 64 yards apiece for Duke, with Josh Snead leading the way with a career-high 99.
“We didn’t stop the run, nor did we stop the pass,” Fedora said. “We did a poor job of executing tonight. It looked like to me they did whatever they wanted, offensively, defensively and on special teams.”