"Really, really proud of our guys," UNC coach Mack Brown said. "People better hang on because we're going to keep getting better. The program is getting better. We saw signs of it on defense today. And now we just got to get our offense to continue to grow as well."
The Tar Heels (3-2, 2-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) jumped ahead with a pair of explosive plays in the first half.
Howell connected with running back Ty Chandler down the sideline for a 75-yard score to open the scoring. Less than two minutes later, Kevin Hester hit Duke's Gunnar Holmberg as he was throwing, causing the ball to flutter out of his hand and Trey Morrison returned the fumble 63 yards for a touchdown.
Allowing the scoop-and-score epitomized a frustrating performance for Duke (3-2, 0-1 ACC). The Blue Devils punted nine times, turned the ball over twice and converted just 2 of 15 third downs.
Duke scored its lone points on an 80-yard catch-and-run by Jalon Calhoun in the third quarter. The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for the Blue Devils.
"We'll learn from this, but we'll put this behind us quickly in our preparation," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "The difference in the game, to some degree, was their explosives vs. our explosives."
UNC put the game away in the fourth quarter when Howell found receiver Josh Downs for a 63-yard score. It was another big play in a game littered with them. Downs was targeted by Howell 13 times Saturday, and it was the fifth straight game that he has hauled in eight catches. Brown called Downs "one of the best receivers in the country."
"He's an unbelievable player. Even if (Downs) drops the ball, I'm going to keep going to him," Howell said. "He's only getting better."
Duke: ACC leading rusher Mataeo Durant ran for 114 yards, but the Blue Devils were otherwise mostly ineffective offensively. Duke entered this game with one of the nation's top scoring attacks - averaging 38.8 points per-game - but were stifled by a stingy UNC defense.
UNC: The Tar Heels can be successful on offense when their line protects Howell. UNC has allowed 22 sacks this season, the most in the ACC, and against Duke they tried three different players at center. But when Howell has the space to operate, he looks like the Heisman candidate he was hyped up as being in the preseason. Howell is now second in the ACC - and among the top 10 in the nation - in points-responsible for this season with 104.
DEFENSE IMPRESSES MACK
UNC hasn't held a team to seven points or less since its 2020 season opener, a 31-6 victory over Syracuse. This season, the Tar Heels had been allowing 29.5 points per-game before its meeting with Duke. After the game, Brown had nothing but praise for the defensive unit.
"We played our best defense of the year, and maybe since we've been here, and I was really proud of those guys," Brown said. "I thought the defensive front was dominant, but I also feel like (Cam'Ron Kelly) played well today."
Kelly, a junior defensive back, led UNC in tackles with seven and also had an interception. The Tar Heels also tallied five sacks and an additional six hits on Duke's quarterback.
COMFORTABLE IN KENAN
Since Brown returned to coach the Tar Heels before the 2019 season, UNC has only lost four times at home. In front of Saturday's announced crowd of 45,812 fans, Brown extended his winning streak against Duke to 11 games, a run that dates back to his first stint as the Tar Heels' head coach.
Duke: The Blue Devils return to Durham next Saturday to host Georgia Tech.
UNC: The Tar Heels will look for another win in ACC play next Saturday, hosting struggling Florida State.
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Ty Chandler outruns Duke defense for a 75-yard TD
Sam Howell throws to Ty Chandler, who turns on the jets and scores a 75-yard touchdown vs. Duke.