CHAPEL HILL— Duke coach David Cutcliffe and his players talked openly all season about winning a division title and earning a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
On Saturday, the No. 24 Blue Devils made the once-unthinkable goal a reality — complete with Cutcliffe being carried off the field as his players celebrated with Duke fans in their rival’s stadium.
Ross Martin kicked a 27-yard field goal with 2:22 left for a 27-25 win at North Carolina, clinching the Coastal Division championship with the Blue Devils’ eighth straight victory. Duke faces No. 2 Florida State in next weekend’s ACC title game in Charlotte, where the heavy underdog Blue Devils will go for their first league crown since 1989.
“It’s easy to look forward to next week,” left guard Dave Harding said, “but right now I think it’s OK to kind of revel in what we’ve just done.”
Anthony Boone threw for 274 yards and two touchdowns to Jamison Crowder for the Blue Devils (10-2, 6-2 ACC), who also secured the long-suffering program’s first 10-win season. DeVon Edwards returned a kickoff for a 99-yard touchdown and had the game-sealing interception with 13 seconds left to turn away the Tar Heels (6-6, 4-4).
That play started the celebration on the Duke sideline. Minutes after Boone’s kneel down closed it out, defensive linemen Sydney Sarmiento and Justin Foxx had hoisted Cutcliffe on their shoulders, giving the sixth-year coach a great view of his Blue Devils mingling with celebrating fans in a corner of UNC’s Kenan Stadium.
“It was pretty special, a great moment,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t mind these Gatorade baths. Our equipment people have to kind of figure out how to launder all that stuff I’m wearing.”
Cutcliffe inherited a program that had gone 2-33 in the three seasons before his arrival and hadn’t had a winning record or reached a bowl since 1994.
He got the Blue Devils back to a bowl last year. Now his Blue Devils — eligible for a bowl in consecutive seasons for the first time — are going for more.
“He’s the first one to really come here when the team was in the dumps and say, ‘I’m going to change this program around,’” Boone said of Cutcliffe. “And people were laughing at him. It all goes back to him.”
Marquise Williams ran for two scores and threw for another for UNC, which had won five straight to dig out of a 1-5 start and become bowl eligible. But the Tar Heels fell short on their final drive with the chance to spoil Duke’s title hopes.
Williams got them to midfield, breaking free from a collapsing pocket for a 10-yard run on fourth down. But Duke didn’t let the Tar Heels get within Thomas Moore’s field goal range, pressuring Williams as he threw a ball that sailed into Edwards’ waiting arms.
“I was trying to make a play, but I got hit as I was throwing the ball,” Williams said.
“Give them credit,” he added. “They did what they had to do.”
Duke beat its rival on Crowder’s last-second touchdown catch in Durham last season and has claimed the Victory Bell that goes to the winner in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1989.
UNC tight end Eric Ebron had five catches for 121 yards in his final home game. That helped the junior — who said Monday he would enter the NFL draft after the season — set the ACC’s single-season record for yards receiving by a tight end with 895, passing Maryland’s Vernon Davis.
Duke led 17-15 at halftime after Edwards’ long kickoff return, which snatched back momentum after Williams scored on a 1-yard bootleg 11 seconds earlier. Duke pushed that lead to 24-15 on Crowder’s 7-yard TD catch in the back of the end zone, only to see Williams find Quinshad Davis for a 23-yard score to make it a one-possession game.
The Tar Heels certainly will be left with memories of a few late plays that let this one get away.
Among the biggest: Starting center Russell Bodine picked up an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving a Duke player after a play when the Tar Heels had reached the 9-yard line, pushing them back 15 yards and ultimately forcing them to settle for Moore’s 37-yard field goal with 7:03 left.
That put UNC up only 25-24. And after UNC’s Tre Boston dropped an interception from Boone, Martin’s kick sent the Blue Devils on to Charlotte.
“We didn’t play well enough to win a football game,” coach Larry Fedora said. “There’s a lot of things you can look at in this game that we didn’t do and we didn’t accomplish.”
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