By Joedy McCreary/The Associated Press
DURHAM, N.C. — It’s not a misprint. That really is Duke atop the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Coastal Division in football.
The Blue Devils’ last-minute win over rival North Carolina sets up a meeting of division leaders this week when they visit No. 11 Florida State.
Duke’s 33-30 victory on Saturday, plus losses by Miami and Virginia Tech, made the Blue Devils (6-2, 3-1) the division’s only team with one conference loss.
It also marked the latest step forward in coach David Cutcliffe’s massive reconstruction project at what for years had been one of the biggest laughingstocks in the Bowl Subdivision. Since Duke made its last bowl trip and had its last winning season in 1994, the Blue Devils went winless four times.
“I’m concerned about our injuries, but I’m not concerned about our emotions,” Cutcliffe said. “I don’t think we’re going to come out of here satisfied. I think this team realizes that it can win if it plays well every time we get on the field.”
The Blue Devils were one of four one-loss teams in their division heading into the weekend, joining Miami, North Carolina and Virginia Tech. The Hokies slipped off the pace when they were routed by Clemson and the Seminoles took care of Miami in the late game, giving the top spot in the Costal to Duke.
The tough part will be staying there. The Blue Devils close the season with games against Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami, and since the ACC grew to 11 schools in 2004, their win over Clemson that year marks their only victory against any of those teams.
They’ll worry about those opponents as they come. For now, it’s a time to savor their first win over the Tar Heels since 2003 — and first at home since 1988 — and keep thinking big.
“We know we wanted to go bowling, but this (isn’t) it,” running back Josh Snead said. “We (have) our eyes set on winning this division and going to the ACC championship, and then going bowling.”
This one was made even more remarkable because they did some things better than any recent — or not-so-recent — Duke team has.
The Blue Devils rolled up 510 total yards, and their 234 yards rushing marked the most by a Duke team since Cutcliffe took over in 2008. Both totals marked season highs allowed by a North Carolina defense that entered ranked in the ACC’s top tier in every significant statistical category.
They also overcame a late series of events that, in most other years, would have led to yet another loss.
Duke led virtually all night, only to have a two-touchdown lead evaporate in the fourth quarter. North Carolina went up 30-26 on a bizarre play: The Tar Heels’ Erik Highsmith fumbled after a long catch, Duke couldn’t recover the ball and Gio Bernard scooped it up and scored.
Many previous Duke teams would have folded there. This one responded by going 87 yards in 14 plays, converting three third-and-longs to move to the North Carolina 5. On fourth down in the closing seconds, Sean Renfree rolled and threw over the middle to Jamison Crowder — who held on in the end zone as he was upended by a pair of defenders for the winning touchdown.
“That’s just something that you dream about since you were a little kid,” Crowder said. “Watching a lot of ballgames and you see players catch game-winning touchdowns or hit game-winners in basketball. It’s just a dream come true for me. I always think about that, scoring the last touchdown to win the game. It couldn’t have come better against Carolina.”