Duke's Kenny Anunike (84) and Brandon Connette (18) brought the victory bell into the Blue Devils' locker room. Credit: CHUCK LIDDY
DURHAM—Duke turned in its most impressive rushing performance of the David Cutcliffe era, running for 234 yards on a season-high 53 carries. And it came against one of the best run defenses in the country.
North Carolina, ranked 14th in the nation with an average of just 99.7 rushing yards allowed per game. Before Duke rushed for its 232 yards, the previous high for a North Carolina opponent was 183 yards to Louisville. Duke’s total was also well above the Blue Devils average of 111.1 yards per game.
Josh Snead set a new career-high with 99 yards on 15 attempts, more than doubling the 47 yards he had in the season-opener against Florida International. Juwan Thompson added 64 yards on 11 carries, and freshman Jela Duncan contributed 74 yards on his own. It's the first time this season that three Duke players have rushed for at least 50 yards each.
Duncan also had a key block on a successful third-and-6 conversion in the fourth quarter, setting up Ross Martin’s fourth field goal of the night.
The suddenly potent rushing attack, combined with 276 yards passing, gave Duke a season-high 510 yards of offense. Yes, that means the Blue Devils gained more yards against the Tar Heels than they did against FBS bottom-feeder Memphis and FCS NC Central.
"This is what we had dreamed and hoped and envisioned, 234 and 276," Cutcliffe said of the split between rushing and passing yards. "If you can get in that range, you're playing really, really good football."
Duke also ran 89 offensive snaps, while North Carolina, which prides itself on its up-tempo offense, ran 71.
Costly penalty: North Carolina entered the contest as the most penalized team in the ACC. After racking up 15 penalties in back-to-back games against Virginia Tech and Miami, the Tar Heels committed just two Saturday, but one in the first quarter was rather costly.
On third-and-10 from the Duke 32-yard line, Renfree’s pass was intercepted by Darien Rankin, whose return set North Carolina up in the red zone. But Kevin Reddick was called for roughing the passer when he hit Renfree high as he went by, wiping out the turnover. Duke received a new set of downs on its 47-yard line and ultimately moved down the field and ended in the end zone thanks to a two-yard run by backup quarterback Anthony Boone.
Reddick also dropped an interception with about five minutes remaining in the game as the Tar Heels trailed 26-23. He also was covering Jamison Crowder when he snagged the game-winning touchdown with 13 seconds remaining.
North Carolina entered the game averaging 77.4 penalty yards per game. The Tar Heels’ average will fall after collecting just 20 against Duke.
Renner hurt early: UNC quarterback Bryn Renner missed two plays with an injury after he was hit as he scrambled. While out, Tar Heels backup Marquise Williams converted on third-and-6 from their own 32-yard line, finding Gio Bernard for a 39-yard reception. Renner returned in time for North Carolina’s first-and-goal sequence from the eight-yard line, throwing an incomplete pass on first down and then losing eight yards on third down after the Duke defense brought heavy pressure.
Through three quarters, Renner was just 10-of-19 for 36 yards, or three yards fewer than Williams collected on his single pass. Renner’s totals nearly doubled in the fourth quarter when he competed a 34-yard pass to Eric Ebron on UNC’s first touchdown drive of the game.
Vernon Duke’s best: Conner Vernon continued to collect new records, and this week he became Duke’s all-time leader in receiving yards. The Tar Heels defense left him wide open on second-and-8 from midfield, and Renfree found him for a 48-yard reception. That catch gave Vernon 3,348 receiving yards for his career, passing Clarkston Hines (3,318).
Vernon also owns the nation’s longest receiving streak with at least one catch in 43 straight games. The next major record on his horizon is the ACC’s all-time career receiving yards mark, currently held by Florida State’s Peter Warrick (3,517). Vernon is 93 yards shy of Warrick and will have a chance to break the record in Tallahassee. He is averaging 93.6 receiving yards per game so far this year.
There was a sellout crowd—33,941—on hand at Wallace Wade Stadium to watch Duke play UNC. It was the first sellout in Durham since Alabama came in 2010, and it was the largest crowd to watch a game between the two rivals in Durham since 1994, when 40, 103 fans filled the horseshoe.
In one of the more bizarre sequences in the game, Duke WR Conner Vernon went down with an apparent leg injury second quarter before the ball was snapped. UNC LB Shakeel Rashad was a late substitution and clipped Vernon from behind. Vernon dropped to the ground and rolled around, but he was back on the next snap. No penalty was called on the play.