DURHAM — As Dazz Newsome broke free and sprinted downfield, nobody there to stop him on an eventual 84-yard touchdown run, he put the finishing touches on the best half of North Carolina offensive football this season.
Newsome’s score tied UNC with Duke, 28-28. He was the fourth different Tar Heel to log a rushing touchdown in the first half. After two quarters, UNC had racked up 370 total yards of offense — good for almost 10 yards a play — while getting every significant playmaker involved.
But the second half of North Carolina’s 42-35 loss on Saturday was the exact opposite. Despite finishing with a season-high 536 total yards, UNC scored just once after halftime.
Against an unrelenting Duke offense, this lack of points was a key factor in UNC’s third consecutive loss to its biggest rival. The Tar Heels are now 1-8, 1-6 in the ACC and still winless on the road.
“Especially in the third quarter, there were some adjustments that were made, and we didn’t handle those adjustments very well,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “We just didn’t move the chains like we should have.”
UNC scored its first touchdown as many fans in Wallace Wade Stadium were still finding their seats. The drive was rapid — seven plays for 75 yards, in under three minutes — and came mostly on the ground.
Michael Carter ripped off runs of 11 and 17 yards. Antonio Williams added a 12-yard run of his own. Wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams finished the drive off by lining up as quarterback and keeping the ball on a triple option for a 13-yard score.
The next touchdown drive was even faster: six plays, 83 yards, two minutes of possession. Running backs Carter and Williams both logged first downs. Then, Carter broke free for a 40-yard touchdown.
“I thought we did some great things on offense in the first half,” quarterback Nathan Elliott said. “Running backs looked great.”
The Blue Devils, of course, were also scoring rapidly. Quarterback Daniel Jones had the game of his life, racking up 547 yards of total offense, the most UNC has allowed to a single player in school history. But North Carolina seemed comfortable with a shootout.
Everything changed in the third quarter. The North Carolina defense, gashed for 398 yards in the first half, settled in for a while. Duke’s first three second-half possessions resulted in a blocked field goal and two lost fumbles.
All three amounted to nothing though. UNC’s offense punted four plays after Tomon Fox’s field goal block. And the Tar Heels went three and out after both of their forced turnovers.
“We're just not making enough plays,” said Newsome, a sophomore receiver. “We're not doing what we need to do. We were one missed assignment here, one missed assignment there.”
After holding out three times, fatigue set in on the Tar Heel defense. On Duke’s fourth possession of the half, Jones outran multiple defensive backs for a 68-yard gain, off a read option. The Blue Devils scored again to give themselves a 42-28 cushion, which they wouldn’t relinquish.
After rushing for 272 yards at 11.3 yards per carry in the first half, UNC’s ground game all but disappeared. The Tar Heels ran 13 times for just 43 yards in the last two quarters. Carter rushed for 122 yards in the first half and 26 in the second.
“It's really apparent we stalled out, in terms of running the ball, in the second half,” he said. “I take the blame for that. Because I talk about being great a lot, and the great ones find a way to get it done. So, I've got work to do.”
The Blue Devils are now 7-3. They’ve won three straight over UNC for the first time since 1987, 1988 and 1989, and they’ve won consecutive home games against their rivals for the first time since the 1950s.
That contrast couldn’t have been more apparent after the game ended. Duke players high-fived their student section and then ran to midfield, where they created a dance circle around the Victory Bell. One player hit the Dougie, his moves broadcasted for all to see on the stadium's big screens.
Meanwhile, UNC — losers of six straight games — began a solemn trudge back to the visitors’ locker room.
“You've got to go through something to get to something,” Carter would say minutes later. “And that's what I feel like this is right now.”