North Carolina running back Giovani Bernard was nearly done running wild on the Blue Devils.
As the Tar Heels killed the clock in the fourth quarter, one Duke player wasn’t ready for everything to end—the game, the promise of the 2011 season, and his college career.
Safety Matt Daniels tackled Bernard on a late run, wrestling him to the ground and tearing off Bernard’s helmet in the process. Daniels and Bernard exchanged words until officials stepped between them.
Afterward, Bernard blamed the incident on a helmet strap that needed tightening, then paused and added, “Number 40 was definitely going at it.”
Opponents and teammates alike often refer to Daniels by number—40—instead of his name. Perhaps it’s because of the way he jumps off the game film they all watch endlessly.
“Everyone knows where number 40 is all the time,” said teammate Ross Cockrell, “and they know that when he comes, he’s bringing wood.”
Bernard ran for 173 yards in the game, setting a host of UNC freshman records in the process, but Daniels also turned in a game for the ages in a losing effort.
Duke tackled Bernard 29 times on the day, and Daniels was the man to bring him down on a dozen of those plays. He made a career-high 18 tackles in the game. Only five other Blue Devils have made as many in a game this millennium.
Matt Daniels deserved better. Like so many of his best performances, the heroics against UNC came in a losing effort. His other eight double-digit tackle games all came in losses as well. The record-tying six pass break ups came in a season-opening heartbreaker to Richmond.
He had an interception in last season’s opener against Elon, and caused fumbles in 2009 games against Army and N.C. Central. The rest of his 14 career turnovers all came in losing efforts.
Matt Daniels deserved a bowl game.
A total of seven points would have won Duke another three games in 2011. They lost by two to Richmond, one to Wake, and four to Virginia Tech. The equivalent of one extra touchdown and Matt Daniels has one game left.
Instead, Daniels and the rest of the senior class finished their career with a mixed accolade. Their class became the winningest group of Duke seniors since 1995, but they did it with just 15 victories in four years.
“It’s a good thing, but at the same time, it’s not,” he said. “It’s something to be proud of, but we had the opportunity to be greater than we are now and didn’t take advantage. It’s bittersweet.”
Matt Daniels also deserved a chance to ring the Victory Bell.
“Bringing back that bell and ringing it would bring joy to my heart,” he said in the week leading up to the Carolina game, where the winning team gets custody of the trophy for the following year.
His epic last stand against Carolina resulted in an eighth straight Tar Heel win in the series. As a freshman, they lost by eight. Last year, the difference was five points. Even this year, Duke pulled to within two points in the third quarter.
“The series with them has been the same thing as our season this year,” Daniels said. “One point here and there, two points, four points.” His voice trailed off.
“We can’t seem to take the opportunity by the throat and hold on,” he added.
Matt Daniels deserves individual glory.
The jury is still out on most postseason awards, but all conference and All America teams tend to overlook players on 3-9 teams.
“Matt is our best football player,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “(Georgia Tech coach) Paul Johnson said he’s the best player in the ACC. He does it every single week, with no off days. He’s a vicious tackler, a great leader, and the epitome of a captain.”
“It would be an injustice if he doesn’t end up on someone’s All America team,” Cutcliffe finished.
Matt Daniels didn’t get everything he deserved in his Duke career, but you could never tell it from his effort, whether it’s a big hit on Carolina’s running back in the waning moments or a gutty play with a handful of coaches watching on a weekday practice.
“He brought such intensity and effort on the last Tuesday he practiced for us, you’d have thought he was a freshman trying to make the squad,” Cutcliffe said.
As the losses mounted and Duke’s goals for the season slipped off the table, one-by-one, Daniels never let down. He went out on his shield, leaving an example for the younger players to emulate as they continue to build the program.
“It helps me to realize I left Duke a better place than I found it,” Daniels said.