Tar Heels Squeak By Duke

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – It was by no means a cleansing catharsis to wash away the frustration of another up and down season. In a game many thought North Carolina would win easily, the Tar Heels had to manufacture a come-from-behind touchdown scoring drive in the final minutes to escape with a 24-21 win over rival Duke.

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    "Overall, I'm really proud of the way the kids responded," UNC coach John Bunting said. "We were able to finish the game."

    Still, there were no extended on-the-field celebrations by the Carolina players. The fans filed out of the stadium in an orderly manner. The goalposts remained intact. And there will be no bonfires on Franklin Street Saturday night.

    File this one away under "Whew."

    "No, we didn't underestimate Duke," UNC defensive end Tommy Davis said. "Hey, it's a rivalry game. We knew it was going to be tough."

    Having surged ahead 17-14 with 10 unanswered points in the second quarter, UNC (5-5, 4-3 ACC) found itself in need of a touchdown with just 5:02 remaining or it would face a humiliating loss to the lowly Blue Devils (1-10, 0-8) on Senior Day in front of an announced crowd of 50,000.

    Enter senior Matt Baker, who just one week prior turned in the finest performance of his career, only to be handcuffed in the final minutes by conservative play-calling in the Tar Heels' 33-30 overtime loss to Maryland.

    It was the same locale, roughly the same time of day and approaching the same east end zone of Kenan Stadium. However, unlike the situation facing him against the Terps, a field goal wouldn't cut it.

    And perhaps that was a good thing.

    While Carolina's winning points came on a 3-yard touchdown run by Ronnie McGill, it was Baker who led the 11-play, 68-yard drive, both with his arm and his feet.

    Baker went 3-of-6 for the possession, which was aided by a roughing the passer penalty against Duke. He was also handicapped when what appeared to be a 40-yard touchdown pass was nullified by a offensive pass interference penalty on his intended receiver, Jesse Holley.

    "We didn't give up," Baker said. "I think everybody in the huddle knew we were going to score."

    For the game, Baker completed 15-of-34 attempts 238 yards and a touchdown, including his second straight outing without throwing an interception.

    McGill ran roughshod through the blitzing, baiting, gimmicky and half-guessing Blue Devils' defense for 94 of his season-high 146 yards in the first half.

    "They had two weeks to prepare for us," McGill said. "They brought a lot of blitzes that we never saw."

    However, even after Connor Barth's point after touchdown gave the Tar Heels their eventual winning margin, the Duke offense would get one last chance with 1:38 remaining.

    But junior backup quarterback Mike Schneider, in for true freshman starter Zack Asack, was intercepted by Tommy Richardson on the second play of the drive to close the curtain on a performance that was never supposed to be so dramatic.

    It was the first pick of Richardson's career.

    The decision to replace Asack with Schneider was a coach's decision. Asack was not hurt.

    "Mike is our two-minute guy," Duke coach Ted Roof said.

    Carolina picked off three passes on the day, which were thrown by three different Duke passers.

    It was an apt ending at home for Baker and Richardson, along with 24 UNC seniors performing in front of their parents and families.

    The win also salvaged meaning for the Tar Heels' trip to Blacksburg next weekend, where they wrap up the regular season versus sixth-ranked Virginia Tech with a chance at bowl eligibility on the line. The Hokies (9-1, 6-1) demolished Virginia on Saturday, 52-14.

    "There is a ton of urgency," Baker said, referring to the Tar Heels' need to pick up a sixth win next Saturday on the road. "We're going to go up there like we have nothing to lose and we don't. We'll be the underdog, so there will be no sense in being nervous and playing scared."

    Carolina took the opening kickoff and marched 74 yards on eight plays to score first on a one-yard dive over the goal line by Baker. But from then on, it was clear the Blue Devils were going to pull out all the stops in their final game of the season.

    Clearly after the touchdown had been signaled by the officials, Duke freshman linebacker took a shot at Baker's head, dislodging the UNC quarterback's helmet. That touched off a flurry of fisticuffs between opposing players, which would end in offsetting unsportsmanlike penalties. But the tone had been set for the remainder of the afternoon.

    Duke answered on the ensuing possession with a 71-yard drive of its own. However, it appeared Carolina had stopped the Blue Devils on a 4th-and-5, but UNC defensive end Kentwan Balmer was flagged for a personal foul, and ultimately ejected for an illegal blow to the head.

    "The guys that started and finished, we owe an awful lot of credit to them," Bunting said. "We were hurting on the front going into the game."

    Adding to the severity of the ruling was the fact the Tar Heels were already missing DE's Brian Rackley and Hilee Taylor due to injury.

    Duke wound up scoring on a two-yard bootleg by Asack to tie the score, and then went up 14-7 after one-yard run by tailback Justin Boyle with 57 seconds remaining in the first quarter.

    The two teams combined for 19 infractions totaling 158 yards, in what was an unusually ill-spirited contest -- even for these bitter old adversaries.

    Carolina finished with 401 yards of total offense, its second-highest output of the season. Meanwhile the defense held Duke to 244 yards, its second-lowest total allowed this year.

    "We've have one-game left and we can play some more if we go up to Blacksburg and win," Bunting said. "I didn't want it to come down to this, but that's the way it is."

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