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November 27, 2010

UNC seniors shine in win vs. Duke to close regular season

DURHAM, N.C. - As North Carolina coach Butch Davis answered post-game questions from the media, his players could be heard loud and clear through the cinderblock wall, yelling in celebration while ringing the Victory Bell.

It was a celebration that was bound to last beyond the field - not because the 24-19 win against rival Duke wasn't expected but because of what how it felt for them to end such a trying season on a winning note.

"It means a lot," quarterback T.J. Yates said. "This team has been through so much, to get a win in the last regular-season game against Duke in the way we did was really special."

They way they did it was by dominating statistically - pretty much everywhere except the scoreboard - and making plays to seal the game when it suddenly became necessary in the final minutes.

"I told the team to win this game, it was going to take a total team effort," Davis said.

The Tar Heels (7-5, 4-4 in the ACC) certainly got one.

Yates was 28-for-35 passing for 264 yards and a touchdown on the way to setting a single-season UNC record for completions.

Receiver Dwight Jones had a career-high 11 catches for 121 yards, and senior tight end Ryan Taylor set career highs with six catches for 75 yards.

Running back Anthony Elzy rushed for a career-high 116 yards, while fellow senior Shaun Draughn added 59 yards and a score of his own.

"Our game plan was to attack their soft spots," Elzy said. "Things we practiced all week, that's what we saw here today."

On the other side of the ball, the Carolina defense completely shut down the Blue Devils' rushing attack, holding it to 12 yards - the lowest by a UNC opponent this year - and forcing Duke (3-9, 1-7) to become a passing-only offense.

"I always say, defensively, you've got to make the game a one-dimensional game," Davis said.

Really, the only problem for the Tar Heels, who didn't commit a turnover in the game, was that their season-high 519 yards of total offense - UNC's most since 2004 - and 19-minute advantage in time of possession yielded just 24 points.

That's what made it possible for the Blue Devils to put a scare into them late.

It looked as if senior cornerback Kendric Burney had sealed the game with five minutes remaining in the game when he grabbed the second of UNC's two interceptions of Duke quarterback Sean Renfree.

But a penalty on the return left Carolina's offense starting from its own 2-yard line, and on the first play, Duke wrapped up Draughn for a safety to cut the UNC lead to 24-12.

The Blue Devils scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to make it a five-point game with 3:22 remaining.

"Our luck of the season," Burney said.

But Carolina wasn't about to let a win slip away in its final regular-season game. Not after everything the team had been through this year.

"We weren't necessarily nervous," Elzy said. "We just knew we'd been in this situation a lot, and we had to come through. We were more focused than nervous."

So even after a replay took away a first-down run by Elzy that would have sealed the game with a little more than a minute to go, the Tar Heels stayed calm.

They covered the punt they were forced to make and then shut down the Blue Devils' final attempts to move the ball.

Even if it was a little too close for comfort - and even if that wasn't much of a surprise for the Tar Heels given what they have been through all season - the win left Carolina's seniors elated, ringing that bell long after the game was over.

They know that despite missing plenty of players as NCAA investigations unfolded over the course of the season, they still managed to assure UNC of its third winning season in a row, something that hadn't happened since 1998.

"It says that we'll never quit," Burney said. "That's the motto that Coach Davis has preached since he's been here."


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