DURHAM — By the time Duke quarterback Daniel Jones streaked down the right sideline for a 61-yard touchdown near the end of the second quarter, his career day against North Carolina was already well underway.
Though it wasn’t even halftime yet and the score was in a dead tie at 28-28, Jones was reaping the benefits of a North Carolina defense that hadn’t shown up at all in the game up to that point.
Jones had gashed the Tar Heels for passes of 52 yards, followed by plays of 34, 26, then 54 in the first quarter. Then he connected with receiver T.J. Rahming for a 48-yard pickup at the start of the second quarter.
“He’s a good player,” head coach Larry Fedora said after the game. “He’s a really good player and he did some unbelievable things today with his arm and his legs.”
In the first half of an eventual 42-35 loss for UNC, the Blue Devil receivers were having a field day, catching hard, crisp passes in the wide open space and then doing the only thing they needed to do: run.
Jones threw hard and accurate, but he was also making plays with his legs, becoming the game's leading rusher in the third quarter. When he scampered past the goal line untouched with 16 seconds remaining before the break, it just was a sign of things to come.
But the North Carolina defense hadn’t given up yet. The last several games have taken their toll on the defense, which has allowed 35.6 points per game, on average, but with a full defensive line back for the first time this season, they expected to fix the problems.
"We definitely felt like we were still close and that we just had to minimize the mistakes,” senior defensive end Malik Carney said. “Football is a game of mistakes, and a game of inches and angles. Our morale was up, a lot of guys were hype, juiced up, ready to go back out there and compete."
A few halftime adjustments made a difference. After allowing touchdowns on five of seven drives and forcing just one punt, UNC came out and blocked a field goal to start the third quarter.
On that drive, Jones completed 5-of-9 passes and ran for another 11, before the offense sputtered out. The special teams unit came out for a chip shot of a field goal, but on the kick, Tomon Fox reached up his hand and deflected the ball.
But with the UNC offense struggling to move the ball — it only managed 23 yards in the third quarter — it almost didn't matter. The damage was done.
The following two drives, Carney forced a fumble from wide receiver Chris Taylor and Jalen Dalton knocked the ball out of Jones’ hand on a sack. Had the offense capitalized on the opportunity, maybe the outcome would have been different.
But the offense didn't, and the defense had already set a precedent in the first half that would strike again.
After nearly 13 minutes of scoreless play, the Duke offensive line opened a massive hole right in the center of the UNC defense. Jones ran through the hole and didn’t stop until the 2-yard line, when a shoestring tackle by Trey Morrison brought him down. Jones was gassed at the end of the play, so his backup Quentin Harris came in and completed the drive for him the following play.
There have been a lot of reasons why the Tar Heels haven't pulled out recent games. On Saturday, that reason was Jones.
The redshirt junior quarterback accounted for 547 of his team's 629 yards of total offense — by game's end securing the record for the most yards allowed by a North Carolina defense from a single player.
Last season, former Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson set that record when he cut up the Tar Heels for 525 yards. It was a high mark that didn't look like it could be conceivably broken so soon, but Jones did it.
Most total yards by an opposing player in a single game, UNC football history:
547 by Duke QB Daniel Jones in 2018 525 by Louisville QB Lamar Jackson in 2017 479 by Arizona State QB Andrew Walter in 2002
Since he stepped foot on campus in Durham, Jones is undefeated against UNC as the starting quarterback — leading his program to three consecutive victories over its rival school for the first time since the last three years of the 1980s.
While the Blue Devils celebrated holding onto the Victory Bell for another year and head coach David Cutcliffe danced to James Brown, North Carolina came to grips with another loss. This time, it was at the hands of a one-two punch that combined one of the worst defensive performances in recent UNC memory, which allowed Duke to convert on 13-of-20 third downs, with an offense that stalled out right when the team needed it most.
The Tar Heels have now lost eight games overall, four of which have been decided by a touchdown or less and another two by 10 points. It hasn't been the rebound year the team was hopeful it would be.
“Of course, it's going to be harder to just keep trying to do the right things and keep working to try to get a win,” Carney said. “But, you know, we've just got to stay grinding.”