DURHAM, N.C.--- North Carolina had to play from behind in Saturday night's key ACC Coastal Division tilt at Duke after playing dreadfully in the first half, and after finally getting its act together in the fourth quarter the Tar Heels played to a frantic finish.
Remarkably after trailing the entire game UNC had the lead in the final minute, only to watch Duke trudge 87 yards in 14 plays with the game hanging in the balance.
Jamison Crowder made the game-winning catch on fourth down with 13 seconds left as Duke held on for a thrilling 33-30 triumph at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1 ACC) came out the more inspired and more focused football team in building a 20-6 halftime lead, and managed to hang onto the lead until a freak play in the final four minutes, when Giovani Bernard scooped up a fumble and gave Carolina a 30-26 lead with 3:12 to go---UNC's first lead since midway through the first quarter.
Carolina drew first blood on an early Casey Barth field goal, set up by a 60-yard screen pass from backup QB Marquise Williams to Bernard.
Bernard had 123 of UNC's 152 first half yards, and he got nearly half of that on the screen pass from Williams.
Williams came in for a single play following a hard fall by Renner, which briefly forced him out of the game. Renner didn't seem the same after he was jolted to the ground on that opening drive, as he seemed to play much of the next three quarters in a weird daze.
Duke's offense was precise and on the mark in the first half, as quarterback Sean Renfree completed 10 of 14 passes for 138 yards over the first two periods. He led the Blue Devils to three scoring drives and 13 unanswered points over an eight-minute stretch in the first quarter and early second quarter, turning UNC's early 3-0 advantage into a 13-3 Duke lead.
During that stretch the Blue Devils took advantage of a flurry of UNC mistakes, including a costly 'roughing the passer' penalty on Kevin Reddick that nullified a Darien Rankin interception deep in Duke territory, and a fumble after a catch by Eric Ebron that the Blue Devils recovered and went on to drive for another score.
Then, after Barth connected on his second field goal to make the score 13-6 after another failed red zone drive by the Tar Heel offense, Duke marched 44 yards in eight plays, culminated by a Duncan 2-yard touchdown run to take the 20-6 halftime advantage.
Four different receivers had at least two catches in the first half for Duke, while running backs Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan rushed 20 times for a combined 88 net rushing yards---just 11 yards less in one half than the Tar Heel defense has been averaging over a whole game so far this fall (99.7 ypg).
Duke found remarkable success running the ball up the middle, pounding the Tar Heels time and again between the tackles on the ground. For the game the Blue Devils ran 53 times for 234 net rushing yards.
In the third quarter UNC marched into Duke territory and stalled out, setting up Barth for a potential 52-yard field goal.
But the Tar Heels ran a fake field goal, as holder and starting punter Thomas Hibbard rambled across the first down marker.
But for the third time on the night Carolina failed to score from within the red zone, and a 28-yard field goal by Barth made the score 20-9.
Not to be outdone, however, Renfree promptly drove Duke back inside Carolina's 10 yard line, where the Blue Devils converted another field goal to take a 23-9 lead heading into the final period.
Duke got the ball early in the fourth quarter with a chance to put the game away for all intents and purpose, but the Tar Heels got a huge stop on fourth down on a Blue Devil fake punt attempt, seizing the momentum much as they did with a similar defensive hold in the second half against Louisville.
The Blue Devils forced a fourth and six on UNC on its next offensive possession, but Renner, in what was his best throw of the game to that point, found Ebron alone downfield for 36 yards to put the Tar Heels close. Bernard pushed UNC down to the 1-yard line, where on a third down play he dove over the goal line.
Trailing 23-16, the Tar Heels allowed Duke to again move into field goal range, where Blue Devil kicker Ross Martin nailed his fourth field goal of the night to make it 26-16 at the 9:22 mark of the fourth quarter.
With the pressure on in a big way, Renner coolly led the Tar Heels on a 10-play, 75-yard jaunt, highlighted by a 30-plus yard reception by Ebron, several nice runs by Bernard, and a touchdown pass to Sean Tapley, which cut Duke's lead to 26-23 at the 6:28 mark.
Following a UNC defensive stop, the Tar Heels got the ball back with a chance to take the lead and they did just that on one of the strangest plays anyone can recall in this ages-old gridiron rivalry.
Senior Erik Highsmith caught a pass deep in Duke territory but fumbled around the Blue Devil 22.
But then Bernard came out of nowhere, scooping up the loose ball and running the remaining distance to stunningly give UNC a 30-26 lead with under four minutes to go.
Incredibly, despite its overall poor play, the Tar Heels were in the lead, and all they had to do was get a single defensive stop and the Victory Bell would remain in Chapel Hill.
But it wasn't to be, as Renfree continued to slice apart the UNC secondary on his way downfield. Duke pushed all the way to the Tar Heel 5 before the game's fateful play, Renfree's scoring pass to Crowder in the middle of the end zone.
Crowder's leaping catch set off a frenzied celebration on the Duke sidelines, and following a couple of stops on Carolina's desperate last-ditch possession, the Blue Devil faithful stormed the field while the Duke players raced across to the UNC sideline to reclaim the Victory Bell for the first time since 2003.
What makes the win even sweeter for Duke is that they're now bowl-eligible for the first time since 1994.
For Carolina, who falls to 5-3 overall and 2-2 in league play with the loss, not only do they relinquish the Victory Bell, but they lose a piece of first place in the ACC Coastal and a key tiebreaker to the Blue Devils heading into another heated local rivalry battle next weekend in Kenan Stadium against N.C. State.
Stay tuned to Tar Heel Illustrated throughout the evening and Sunday for more on Carolina's stunning loss to the Blue Devils.