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Duke (3-9, 1-7 ACC) took advantage of a short field to score a touchdown on its second possession of the game, as quarterback Sean Renfree (24-of-39 passing, 242 yards, TD, 2 INT) connected with Austin Kelly on a nine-yard touchdown pass. Anthony Elzy (career-high 116 rushing yards, TD) tied the score with a five-yard run and Casey Barth added a 25-yard field goal midway through the second quarter to give North Carolina (7-5, 4-4 ACC) a 10-7 halftime lead.
T.J. Yates (28-of-35 passing, 264 yards, TD) drove the Tar Heels down the field on their opening possession out of the locker room and hooked up with Josh Adams on a five-yard touchdown pass. After Duke's Will Snyderwine connected on a 21-yard field goal, Shaun Draughn scored on a three-yard touchdown run to increase UNC's lead to 24-10.
In an odd series of events, an illegal block on North Carolina after a Kendric Burney interception near the goal line placed the Tar Heel offense on its own two-yard line and Duke capitalized by tackling Draughn in the end zone for a safety with 4:55 to play. Duke took the ensuing punt and Brandon Connette scored from two yards out to cut its deficit to 24-19 with 3:22 left, but the game clock eventually ran out with the Blue Devils standing on their own 41-yard line.
Yates added three more notations to his lengthy resume on Saturday, setting the single-season school completions mark (259) and becoming the first Tar Heel signal caller to eclipse the 3,000-yard plateau in a season (3,184) and 9,000-yard level in a career (9,143).
North Carolina outgained Duke, 519-275, secured 14 more first downs (25-11) and dominated time of possession (39:33-20:27).
The Tar Heels secured a third-straight winning season for the first time since posting nine straight winning seasons from 1990-98.
INSIDE THE GAME
Winning teams typically score in a variety of fashion. Turnovers, kick returns, deep balls, 30-yard scampers and even the occasional time-consuming drive. Rarely do teams deliver lengthy methodical drives over and over again, but that's exactly what UNC offensive coordinator John Shoop dialed up against the Blue Devils.
He took his shots down the field – see the attempted designed homerun ball down the seam to Dwight Jones on UNC's first play from scrimmage – but the mad scientist more resembled a maniacal surgeon on this cold night in Durham.
After turning the ball over on downs to open the game, UNC grinded out a 10-play, 94-yard touchdown drive followed by a 16-play, 87-yard series that resulted in a field goal. Those two possessions chewed up 13 minutes and 32 seconds off the clock in the first half.
"We did a good job of sustaining long drives," Yates told reporters during his postgame press conference. "We didn't have that many possessions, which is the reason that it was so close. We felt like we were dominating on offense, so we were pretty confident going into halftime that coming out in the second half we could get back on them."
North Carolina's third quarter provided more of the same – a 12-play, 80-yard drive and a 12-play, 81-yard drive that both ended with touchdowns and took more than 10 minutes off the clock. The other third quarter drive – a eight-play, 57-yard series – would be considered a mild success by most offensive coordinators but paled in comparison to its counterparts on Saturday.
The only series that did not yield a first down for UNC was the safety possession late in the game.
"It was a good solid performance," head coach Butch Davis said. "I don't know what T.J.'s stats were, but a lot of the things that he does that helps our offense – they don't even put them on the stat sheet… We got production out of just about every single group."
North Carolina's fourth quarter efforts fell off considerably, which helps explain Duke's ability to rally. The Tar Heels ran 13 plays and gained just 34 yards on three possessions in the final stanza.
Seniors Stepping Up
While UNC's senior day was technically last week at Kenan Stadium, those fourth and fifth-year players still had one more regular season game to play in before their careers came to a close. It was only fitting that the Tar Heel seniors played a significant role in holding off Duke and claiming their third-straight winning season.
Facing an early 3rd-and-9 on UNC's seven-yard-line, Yates connected with senior tight end Ryan Taylor for a 40-yard reception down the middle of the field. Elzy and Draughn – both seniors – scored touchdowns for the Tar Heels, while Deunta Williams led the team in tackles (9) and Kendric Burney hauled in an interception to go along with his four tackles.
"Our seniors really deserve it," Elzy said. "We have worked so hard to try and be the best leaders that we can and I think all of our work paid off tonight."
But more important than any of the statistics is what this group of seniors have done in helping this program navigate through the difficult waters of the past five months.
"You can't put into words… I'm not nearly good enough to be able to say what those guys do behind the scenes to keep this team focused and to keep them playing hard," Davis said.
Bowl Scenario Muddied
North Carolina entered the weekend as one of the ACC's nine bowl-eligible teams and one of four conference members with a 6-5 overall record. With the Pac-10 expected to fall short in its hopes of sending a bowl-eligible team to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Jan. 9, the ACC will take advantage of an agreement to fill that vacancy and guarantee a postseason appearance for all of its bowl-eligible members.
All N.C. State had to do was beat Maryland on Saturday afternoon and all of the pieces would likely have fallen into place for North Carolina to play against a SEC opponent in the Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. But the Wolfpack coughed up a 14-point lead in College Park and crashed the deck of cards that served as the tentative ACC bowl lineup.
The ACC Championship Game between Virginia Tech and Florida State next weekend will determine the conference representative in the Orange Bowl, while the losing team will likely head to the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve, but that's where the simplicity ends.
The Champs Sports Bowl has expressed interest in a Miami-Notre Dame matchup if the Fighting Irish can beat Southern Cal on Saturday night, but N.C. State and Maryland would also be options. Next in line is the Hyundai Sun Bowl and those officials have been open in their desire to host Miami, although it remains to be seen if the Hurricanes overtime loss to South Florida on Saturday changes that opinion.
The Meineke Car Care Bowl stands fifth in the selection order and that's where N.C. State's loss could effect UNC's bowl destination. Bowl officials are rumored to want Clemson and its local draw, but the Wolfpack would be a definite option if they are still available.
If N.C. State ends up in Charlotte, North Carolina will be fighting with Georgia Tech and the Tigers for the Music City, Independence and Military Bowls.
A Maryland loss on Saturday would have likely relegated the Terrapins to the Military Bowl in nearby Washington, D.C.