DURHAM – Down four with slightly more than three minutes remaining, Duke stood at its own 13-yard line with another bad storyline on the horizon: Another week, another blown lead, another Duke disappointment.
With quarterback Sean Renfree doing a suitable John Elway impression and Jamison Crowder making a wild catch in traffic, the storyline was joy at Wallace Wade Stadium.
Duke's students invaded the field after the final whistle sounded in Duke's 33-30 victory against North Carolina thanks to a 14-play, 87-yard scoring drive that saw Renfree hit Crowder for the game-winning score with 13 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.
Crowder, Renfree's fourth option on a fourth-and-two play from North Carolina's 5-yard line, jumped to catch the pass and was sandwiched by hard hits from two defenders. He hit the ground only to pop up with the ball held high in the air.
"That's just something that you dream about since you were a little kid," Crowder said. "It's just a dream come true for me. I always think about that, scoring the last touchdown to win the game. It couldn't have come better (than) against Carolina."
The win gave Duke (6-2, 3-1 ACC) bowl eligibility for the first time since the 1994 season and coupled with Miami's loss to Florida State, sole possession of first place in the ACC Coastal Division with half the conference schedule completed.
“This is why you play college football,” Renfree said. “You dream of this as a kid, playing your rival to go bowl eligible, doing something special pretty much the last play of the game – it doesn't get any better.”
The Blue Devils' prospects for a victory looked slim after North Carolina (5-3, 2-2) erased a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter with a bizarre touchdown.
Quarterback Bryn Renner found Erik Highsmith wide open down the left seam, but Highsmith was stripped by Duke safety Jordan Byas on Duke's 22-yard line. Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell dove on the ball but could not hold it, and North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard scooped up the ball at the 4-yard line and ran in for the score.
But after North Carolina's final drive, the story was Renfree and the Blue Devils.
“It was an incredible job of maintaining intensity for 60 minutes,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “I think, as a team, they did everything we asked them to do, including, at the end, a tremendous job of answering a good team coming back on us.”
Bernard scored two touchdowns and accounted for more than 200 of North Carolina's 414 yards, though North Carolina was in position to win the game because of a self-described bad call by Cutcliffe.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, with the Blue Devils leading, 23-9, and facing a fourth-and-two from their own 48-yard line, Cutcliffe elected to fake a punt by snapping the ball to the up-man, who was stopped short of the marker.
Duke's defense had dominated the game up to that point, so much so that Renner had 36 yards passing at the time of the fake.
North Carolina scored touchdowns – both Bernard scores and a Renner-to-Sean-Tapley touchdown – on their next three offensive possessions following the botched fake.
“I felt on the hook the whole time after that,” Cutcliffe said. “And not because it didn't work, just because it wasn't the right time to do it. We had seen something on tape that we felt was gonna give us the opportunity to do that. In the name of being aggressive, we tried, but it wasn't the thing to do.
"Our team did a good job of bailing the coach out.”
Renfree completed 23 of his 36 attempts for one touchdown and one interception, while receiver Conner Vernon caught six passes for 124 yards, including two long first down catches on the final Duke drive.
The Blue Devils controlled the game with an unlikely ally: their running game. After rushing for 22 yards on 29 carries a week ago against Virginia Tech, Duke rushed for 119 yards on 28 carries in the first half against North Carolina.
Three Blue Devils – Josh Snead, Juwan Thomspon and Jela Duncan – rushed for 64 or more rushing yards.
Duke finished with 234 yards on the ground, a season-high by far.
“They ran it right at us,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “They didn't do anything special. They ran a split zone and ran a power (run), and ran it right at us, and we just didn't do a very good job.”
Duke made North Carolina pay for almost every mistake it made in the first half.
The Tar Heels picked off Renfree and returned it inside the Blue Devils' 10-yard line early in the first quarter, but the play was negated by a roughing the passer penalty. With the drive continued, Duke scored on an Anthony Boone rushing touchdown.
North Carolina turned a third-and-managable into a third-and-long with a false start on the ensuing drive, and the Blue Devils responded with a field goal after the Tar Heel were forced to punt.
The Tar Heels were near midfield on their following possession but lost the ball due to a fumble. Duke countered with another field goal.
North Carolina marched inside the Duke 15-yard line three times but came away with a total of nine points.
Similarly, North Carolina was 4-for-15 on third-down conversions.
“I thought our guys approached the game the right way, and I thought they went out there and played hard,” Fedora said. “We just did not execute anything.”
The Victory Bell, given to the winner of the annual football contest between North Carolina and Duke, was spray-painted Duke's blue.
A spray-paint stain was left on Duke's track which encircles the field, and Cutcliffe was covered in spray paint and Gatorade, which he said “wasn't as bad-smelling as (he) thought it would be." Nobody seemed to mind.
For one night, there was nothing but happiness surrounding the Duke football program.
“It was a swarm of bodies – it was crazy,” Vernon said of the post-game scene. “When I finally got up and got in the mix, to feel all the love from the fans – that's why you play college football. That's why I came to Duke.”