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Game Changers: Duke

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The Duke Blue Devils, who haven't won the Atlantic Coast Conference championship outright since 1962, moved a step closer to that improbable goal against North Carolina Saturday afternoon, as they Blue Devils escaped with a 27-25 win over their rivals to retain the Victory Bell for the second straight autumn, which hasn't happened since the late 1980s.
It's the first time ever the Blue Devils have won ten games in a football season, and they'll now go to the ACC championship against Florida State in Charlotte next weekend with a shot---unlikely as it may be---to keep the Seminoles from playing for the National Championship.
The loss for the Tar Heels ends their five game winning streak and ends their regular season with a 6-6 record overall and 4-4 in the ACC.
Take a look at some of the game changers from Saturday afternoon's contest, as the Blue Devils take home a win and the ACC's Coastal Division for the very first time.
DeVon Edwards Touchdown Return
Just when it really seemed to be going the Tar Heels way before halftime, after the UNC took a 15-10 lead with a Marquise Williams touchdown run and a two point conversion by Thomas Moore, the Duke Blue Devils took it all back in a flash with a 99 yard touchdown return from DeVon Edwards.
It might have been one of the easiest returns for the Blue Devils all season long, as Edwards made a slight cut to the outside and he had daylight down the sideline and in for a touchdown. That gave the Blue Devils the lead heading into halftime and the momentum they were looking for in Chapel Hill.
"I don't think he was touched," said UNC head coach Larry Fedora afterwards about Edwards' long kickoff return.
Third Down Conversions
Third down was not the Tar Heels' friend Saturday afternoon, as North Carolina went 2-of-12 and didn't convert their first third down until late in the second half.
Duke, on the other hand, converted eight-of-15 third downs, consistently moving the chains with a well-executed play when the pressure was really on.
One of the most important third down conversions that the Tar Heels were looking for was when running back T.J. Logan dropped what could have been a sure touchdown for the Tar Heels in the third quarter. On the next play UNC went for it on fourth down, but Williams over-threw his receiver.
UNC's inability to get some points on that particular drive, and being forced to kick a field goal on another second half drive into Duke territory when they couldn't convert a third down, directly impacted Carolina's chances of victory.
Turnovers/ Penalties
There is no doubt that the two interceptions thrown by Williams were costly, with the last one being the ultimate game changer that sealed the win for the Blue Devils as the Tar Heels were driving in Duke's territory for a potential game winning field goal.
Williams had thrown another costly interception when the Tar Heels came out of halftime, as the Blue Devils took advantage of the short field position and drove 50 yards in seven plays to take a 24-15 lead at the time.
Anthony Boone scrambled on third down to eventually find Jamison Crowder in the back of the end zone and to give the Blue Devils its nine-point advantage that it would hold until Thomas Moore's field goal with 7:03 to play that briefly gave UNC a 25-24 lead.
One could also say penalties played a big part in Carolina's defeat, whether it was ones that weren't called and ones that were called. There were some calls that weren't made, especially for Ryan Switzer, while the Tar Heels were called for nine penalties for 85 yards on the afternoon, with none being bigger than the 15 yard penalty by Russell Bodine when the Tar Heels were driving to take the lead in the fourth quarter. North Carolina eventually had to settle for Moore's field goal and only a one point lead when they could have forced Duke to score a touchdown to win instead of just a field goal, which they ultimately converted with just 2:22 on the clock.
Quarterback Play
Williams, even though he had two turnovers, had a pretty decent game, especially after halftime as the UNC quarterback came out and seemed to turn it around after a struggling first half.
Williams threw for 223 yards through the air, while leading the rushing attack (especially late in the second half) with 106 yards on 17 carries. He had three touchdowns in the game (two rushing and one throwing).
But Duke's Boone, who had struggled in a few games this season, had one of his better games of the fall against the North Carolina. Boone went 24-of-34 for 274 yards and two touchdowns, as time and time again he made precision passes to his wide receivers for big gains, as he averaged 8.1 yards per pass completion.
Brandon Connette was the Duke quarterback that came in hot at the end of the season but Boone came through Saturday afternoon, with no turnovers and came away with a win to complete one of the greatest regular seasons in Duke Blue Devil history.
Duke's Offensive Line
This group of Blue Devil offensive linemen have been around each other for almost two years now and they looked like an experienced group of big men in the trenches.
The Tar Heels struggled to get in the backfield all afternoon, as Boone had all kinds of time dropping back and even more time to hit his targets. Duke also had some success on the ground, as the Blue Devils were able to run for 187 yards on the ground, averaging 4.1 yards per carry.
The Duke offensive line played a huge part against a UNC defense that had been really gaining momentum at the end of the season and had been doing a fine job in recent outings of getting after opposing QBs. But it wasn't to be on Saturday, as the Blue Devils kept the Carolina defenders off Boone and Connette, not allowing a single sack.
Duke's offensive front may have been a real weak link for the Blue Devils in past years, but this fall the front five have grown and become a strong anchor for coach David Cutcliffe.
Fourth Quarter Drives
After the Tar Heels had battled their way back from a nine point deficit in the second half and taken a one point lead 25-24 with 7:03 to go in the game, the Blue Devils were able to make key plays down field to counter to take the momentum back.
UNC, unable to get a pass rush, simply couldn't get the big play, whether it was a turnover or sack, to halt the Duke momentum on its fateful final scoring drive.
Duke was able to travel 11 plays down the field for 66 yards, as kicker Ross Martin kicked a 27 yard field goal to give the Blue Devils the go ahead 27-25 win. The drive took 4:41 off the clock and left little time for the Tar Heels to drive down the field.
For the Tar Heels, some might have questions about the play selection at the end of the game for North Carolina, as UNC ran a few times and watched the clock whittle down to well under a minute before Duke's final game-clinching INT.
Even though the Tar Heels were able to get into Duke territory, Williams still was looking to make a play to get in field goal range. The Blue Devils ended that chance though with the interception.
Time of Possession
Time of possession has to stand out in the box score in how the Blue Devils were able to control the clock and limit the possessions for the dynamic offense of the Tar Heels.
The Blue Devils controlled the clock for over 35 minutes in the game, while the Tar Heels were able to control the ball for slightly over 24 minutes. The run game was a big part in this, as Duke had three different scoring drives that went over four and half minutes, with one of them being over eight minutes long in the first half.
The UNC defense had to be tired heading into the second half, and fatigue quite possibly had a direct affect in the last drive for the Blue Devils. But if nothing else, Duke's successful offensive game plan certainly did not allow the Tar Heels to start hitting their stride on offense.