Luke DeCock

What Duke-UNC football rivalry lacks in excellence, it makes up in bile

You don’t see this kind of thing in basketball, not these days. Duke and North Carolina are too well established, have too much to lose. Their rivalry is about excellence as much as it is hatred these days, battling for position atop basketball’s 1 percent. You’d have to go back to Gerald Henderson busting Tyler Hansbrough’s nose to find any kind of flashpoint, and they ended up doing a podcast together, years later.

It’s football where the nasty stuff tends to happen now. Five years after the Spray Paint game in Durham, when North Carolina went slightly awry repainting the Victory Bell and repainted a healthy chunk of Wallace Wade as well — which left then-coach Larry Fedora and athletic director Bubba Cunningham writing five-figure personal checks to their rivals — a crazy game had a crazier finish Saturday and an even crazier aftermath.

After the Tar Heels wheeled the Victory Bell back to their sideline, offensive lineman Jordan Tucker stayed behind in the corner of Kenan Stadium’s east end zone where the visiting team exits the field, taunting and waving at the Duke fans sitting there. Duke staffers and North Carolina assistant strength coach A.J. Blue clashed as they attempted to usher Tucker away. Duke coach David Cutcliffe, in a video recorded by a Greensboro radio host, appeared to point Tucker back to his sideline, and then, along with a state trooper, push him that direction. As the parties were finally separated, an irate Duke administrator dressed down his UNC counterpart.

“I was trying to get people to get back to where they belong,” Cutcliffe said afterward, during a very brief postgame press conference. “Too many staff over there that aren’t our staff. I can’t tell you what happened because I didn’t see what happened. I don’t care for those circumstances.”

Cunningham and North Carolina coach Mack Brown both said they didn’t know enough to comment about the incident with Tucker, although at least two other UNC officials either saw it happen or saw the video clip.

Duke’s Deon Jackson (25) is consoled by teammates Quentin Harris (18) and Rakavius Chambers (67) after he threw an interception with 14 seconds to play to secure a 20-17 victory for North Carolina on Saturday, October 26, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

It was the same end zone where, mere minutes before, Duke had been all of 72 inches from victory, only for running back Deon Jackson to attempt an ill-advised pop pass that landed squarely in the belly of North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt to seal the win for the Tar Heels. Jackson was hit low as he jumped, and the ball squirted to Surratt, one of three defenders between Jackson and intended receiver Noah Gray.

That was the same end zone where, two years ago, Duke cornerback Bryon Fields returned the game-winning interception for the Blue Devils, a pass thrown by then-UNC quarterback ... Chazz Surratt, the second in a run of three straight Duke wins in the series and five of seven. Only five UNC players had ever rung the Victory Bell before Saturday night.

That was also the same end zone where, one month ago, North Carolina decided to go for a two-point conversion to beat Clemson and came up short in a one-point loss, one of seven one-possession games for the Tar Heels this season. North Carolina dialed up an ill-fated speed option on that play, now the second-worst play call to lose a game on that goal line this season. The Tigers said after that one they knew that was coming, just as the Tar Heels said after this one they knew the jump pass was coming.

It was, however, the opposite end zone from where the Tar Heels nearly gave the game away in the first place, Javonte Williams fumbling just outside the goal line with three minutes to go, giving Duke a chance to drive the length of the field for the win. Or 2 yards short of the length of the field, as it turned out.

North Carolina’s Jake Bargas (80) rings the victory bell after the Tar Heels defeated Duke 20-17 on Saturday, October 26, 2019 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Robert Willett

The win made Brown the winningest coach in school history and moved the Tar Heels into a tie for first place in the ACC’s Coastal Division at 3-2, one game ahead of 2-3 Duke. Six of the seven teams in the division are 3-2, 2-2 or 2-3. Which is to say, there’s a lot for North Carolina or Duke to gain or lose with each game, especially this one against each other, bowl eligibility and maybe even a division title hanging in the balance.

It was closer to that in basketball in the days of Art Heyman and Larry Brown, scrapping and clawing (and swinging) for every bit of purchase, but these days these two are so far ahead of the field that their two or three meetings may decide a championship or 11 months of bragging rights, but not the ultimate success or failure of a season.

The level of play may not be as high, but the stakes can be higher on the football field now. The feelings run a little deeper. The certainly did Saturday.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered four Final Fours, the Summer Olympics, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.