With the Victory Bell, the chance for a double-digit win season, and the chance to finish on top of the Coastal Division, all disappearing from view, this game seemed larger than life for the Tar Heel coaches and players.
"Duke outplayed us," head coach Larry Fedora said. "They outplayed us, they out executed us in every phase of the game, and they won the game, and they were the better team tonight – that's all there was to it."
North Carolina was stagnant offensively and porous defensively through three quarters of play in the 33-30 loss. Though the offense was able to get the ball inside the 10-yard line three times, three times Carolina had to settle for field goals. Meanwhile, the Blue Devils did what they wanted to do offensively, leading comfortably 20-6 at the half.
"It looked like to me they did whatever they wanted – offensively, defensively, and on special teams," Fedora said.
While there were varying opinions on the subject, for the most part the Tar Heels denied that their energy level was lacking, including the head coach.
"I don't think there was an energy level problem at all, I thought our energy was good, we prepared well, I just think we did a poor job of executing, and I did a poor job of coaching tonight," Fedora said.
"I thought we were fine, I really thought our energy level was fine, I thought the way we approached the game was good, I thought when we went out of the field – I didn't sense that there was any type of attitude, letdown, anything. I thought our guys approached the game the right way, I thought they went out and played hard, we just did not execute – in anything."
Offensive lineman Jonathan Cooper agreed with his head coach.
"You can say we got outplayed today, we came out jacked up just like they were," Cooper said. "I don't feel like there was any hangover from (the Miami) game. We got outplayed; we weren't able to make more plays than they were. We started out a little slow, and they were able to capitalize."
There did appear to be a stark difference between the first three quarters and the fourth quarter.
Through the first three quarters, the Tar Heels amassed 206 yards of total offense, quarterback Bryn Renner was 10-of-19 for 36 passing yards, and the team had put nine points on the board.
In the fourth quarter, the Tar Heels doubled the yardage of the first three quarters, 208 yards of total offense, Renner was 9-of-13 for 152 yards, and the team put 21 points on the board. A couple of Tar Heels acknowledged that their intensity level didn't match Duke's from the outset.
"We came out a little slow, we came out a little sluggish," running back Gio Bernard said. "It just a matter of we've got to come out strong, we've got to come out faster."
Tim Scott agreed, "We probably didn't come out as strong as we possibly could, but we felt like we came out with energy ready to play. It's just that they came out with more energy."
The Tar Heels didn't get the defensive stop they were able to in Miami last week, but a stronger start offensively might not have required a defense that had been on the field too much on the night – 89 plays – to stop the Blue Devils' winning final drive.
Whether it was the energy level, prior game hangover or not, getting caught looking ahead to N.C. State, or feeling a little too satisfied with wins over Virginia Tech and Miami – whatever the cause – slow starts have equaled three losses for this Tar Heel team.
Just a reminder, the N.C. State game starts at 12:30 p.m..