In case you haven’t heard the shocking news, Duke football is 5-1.
While the surging Blue Devils have created a buzz around campus and the Research Triangle alike, they have also received the attention of some of college football’s national pundits. On the precipice of its first taste of bowl eligibility since 1994, Duke received votes in the AP Top 25 poll this week for the first time in 18 years.
Some unfamiliar faces joined head coach David Cutcliffe at his weekly media luncheon Tuesday. In addition to the regulars from the Duke, Durham and Raleigh communities, writers from ESPN and The New York Times peppered him with questions about the impact of a potential trip to a bowl game, a budding football culture at Duke and Cutcliffe’s team potentially making a long-awaited return to national significance.
And although these juicy storylines will likely find themselves on a fair amount of newsstands and computer screens if the Blue Devils continue their success, these questions missed the real story behind this team. What’s shocking is not the fact that Duke is 5-1, but rather the adversity it has had to overcome to get there.
Coming off back-to-back three-win seasons, 2012 marked a make-or-break year for the Blue Devils. Duke’s 2011 team found itself chock-full of talent but unable to come through in the clutch. Ultimately, a team with great hopes, a preseason All-American and a future member of an NFL roster fell flat on its face.
In the offseason, this team’s emotional fortitude was tested on a date normally reserved for fireworks and barbecues. When wide receiver Blair Holliday was injured in a horrific watercraft accident, the Blue Devils didn’t just lose a dynamic playmaker—Jamison Crowder, who was also involved in the accident, could have been injured as well. This team could have crumbled under the emotional weight of watching their teammate lie in a hospital bed in critical condition.
Instead the team banded together in the wake of tragedy and dove into training camp, where one-by-one, they dropped like flies to injuries. Bumps and bruises turned into surgeries, probable and questionable turned into out for the season, and before the Blue Devils knew it, they were entering the 2012 campaign with a shell of the team they planned on bringing to a tough season-opener against Florida International.
To fill these voids, the team turned to players who had just switched positions to step up and start right away. Safety Brandon Braxton and wide receiver Desmond Scott have answered the call for Duke, contributing in crunch-time with veteran savvy. Brandon Connette, a quarterback all his life, has taken rare snaps under center for the Blue Devils this season, but has scored seven touchdowns and made appearances at running back, wide receiver and tight end. He has even spent time at free safety, and is probably one of the only ACC quarterbacks to play both sides of the football since it was commonplace in the 1940s.
The Blue Devils began to show the talent and offensive firepower that makes them such a dangerous team, racking up easy wins against Florida International, N.C. Central and Memphis in three of their first four games. But as each week went by, the injuries continued to pile up—it seemed like every time a player would return to the lineup from his latest ailment, another player would take his vacant spot on the injury report.
Duke suffered its worst injury in the second half of its win against Wake Forest, when starting quarterback Sean Renfree injured his elbow, forcing him out of the game. With an opportunity to defeat the Demon Deacons for the first time since 1999, backup quarterback Anthony Boone led the Blue Devils to two fourth-quarter touchdowns to snap the streak.
Boone made his first-career start the following weekend in Duke’s biggest home game in two decades. Battered and bruised after losing five starters in its win against Wake Forest, Duke received inspired performanes from its four captains in last week’s 42-17 dismantling of Virginia. Wide receiver Conner Vernon caught two acrobatic touchdown passes, beating Cavalier defenders in the air en route to setting the ACC’s all-time receptions record. Safety Walt Canty earned ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors, registering 14 tackles, including three for a loss and a huge stop on fourth down to turn the game’s momentum. Cornerback Ross Cockrell added his ACC-leading fourth interception of the season. Renfree provided support from the sideline while watching Boone toss four touchdown passes to move the Blue Devils within striking distance of an elusive bowl bid.
This team’s ability to conquer adversity is a testament to its leadership. Duke’s captains have demonstrated their abilities as consummate leaders both on and off the field, and the rest of the team has responded. We are all witnesses of the dividends.
The going will only get tougher as Duke ventures deeper into its ACC schedule. It is possible that the clock might strike midnight on this Cinderella story with difficult matchups against conference foes looming on the horizon. But will the Blue Devils face any obstacles greater than the ones they have already overcome? Probably not.
That’s why the rest of the college football world shouldn’t look away from this Duke team. Everybody might learn a thing or two about heart from them.