DURHAM, N.C. — The fate of the Victory Bell’s shade of blue came down to the final moments of Saturday’s rivalry matchup between the North Carolina and Duke football teams.
For Drake Maye and the Tar Heels, that was plenty of time.
Head coach Mack Brown said one of the best things the team does is practice one-minute offense and defense drills. He has the players perfect these one-minute drives three times a week in practice, and on Saturday, it paid off with a thrilling 38-35 win.
Duke led 35-31 with just over two minutes remaining when Blue Devil kicker Charlie Ham missed a 43-yard field goal attempt. The Tar Heels took possession, and Maye led a game-winning, nine-play drive, ending with a touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Antoine Green with just 16 seconds left on the clock.
The Tar Heels were able to maintain their composure and come out on top in part due to their familiarity with time-sensitive plays in practice. Brown said the team has worked so hard on its one-minute offense and defense this year because it “makes such a difference in ballgames.”
“When there were two minutes and 17-or-something seconds left on the clock with one timeout, that's forever for us,” Brown said. “So I felt like we would win the game.”
But despite any amount of practice, the pressure naturally remains high in close games – especially rivalry games. Maye, who was playing in his first rivalry outing, said he was feeling some nerves before the final drive, but that his teammates were giving him a boost of confidence.
Junior wide receiver Josh Downs said that he and his teammates didn’t have any doubts about Maye and his abilities heading into the final minute of the game.
“Big time players make big time plays in big time situations, and I always stand by that,” Downs said. “I feel like some people may just need a little extra confidence, so I went up to him and I told him, ‘I'm with you.’”
Brown noted that confidence is a big part of this squad’s personality, and something that contributes to their willingness to confront tough, high-stakes challenges.
A year removed from losing every game away from Kenan Stadium, the Tar Heels maintained their undefeated record on the road on Saturday, but Brown added that in all four away games they've played, the team had to step up in moments of adversity.
“They've gone from a team that wasn't confident in that fourth quarter at Appalachian State defensively, to one that was very confident tonight,” Brown said. “It's really hard to stop momentum, especially in a rival game, especially on the road, and they did all that.”
Even after Maye’s pass to Green, the crowd was still tense as Duke sought to get within field goal range in hopes of sending the game to overtime. The Tar Heels’ defense stayed vigilant, and first-year defensive back Will Hardy picked off the Blue Devils’ final pass to seal the win.
“Those end-of-game moments, they help you down the road,” Maye said. “And I think the previous ones in the past helped us here tonight.”
Beyond such moments, though, the Tar Heels’ acute attention to one-minute drills in practice evidently paid off in the last minute of the first half, too.
Just 1:38 on the clock was enough time for Maye to lead a 75-yard touchdown drive before halftime. It was a crucial play heading into the second half, putting UNC within four points of the Blue Devils, as opposed to an 11-point deficit.
With six wins on the season, the Tar Heels have already secured bowl eligibility and control their own fate in the ACC Coastal Conference. While tough tests still await — games against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and N.C. State — winning in tense environments demonstrates the team's resiliency, and also shows it doesn't take long for the offense to click when it needs to the most.
A lot can change in a minute. One thing that won’t be changing for the time being, though, is the Carolina blue shade of the Victory Bell.
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