When Jordon Byas crossed the goal line to give Duke a 20-0 advantage against Virginia Tech just 11:48 into Saturday’s game, more than 65,000 Hokie fans at Lane Stadium fell speechless. Forty one unanswered points later, it was the Blue Devils who were unable to put a humongous collapse into words.
It was a loss that forced college football’s pundits to rethink Duke’s early-season success. After receiving its first votes in the AP Top 25 Poll in David Cutcliffe’s tenure as head coach, the 41-20 loss in Blacksburg has brought the Blue Devils back down to earth. With a 20-point advantage on the road against one of the perennial powerhouses in the conference, Duke seemed assured of its first bowl berth in 18 years, a national ranking and a pretty convincing argument that it was the favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division.
Now the argument has shifted from Duke’s legitimacy to contend for an ACC Championship to whether or not the Blue Devils can even win a sixth game to become bowl eligible.
Duke has taken care of business this year. The Blue Devils have fought through a couple of close contests, but it’s safe to say they have won the games they were supposed to win and lost the games they were supposed to lose.
What this program needs is a statement game. It needs a win against a marquee conference opponent, either coming against a ranked team or on the road, but preferably both. Duke had the chance to accomplish this last weekend against the Hokies, the chance to prove to the entire nation that it deserved the national recognition beyond that of an upstart Cinderella story. And the worst part about it is, for the first quarter of the game the team succeeded, only to let it all slip away.
As horrible as last weekend’s implosion was, Duke has another chance at that elusive signature win this week when it faces North Carolina. Although the Blue Devils and Tar Heels account for the single greatest rivalry in sports, it has been awfully one-sided when played out on the gridiron in recent memory. North Carolina hasn’t lost to Duke since 2003 and has taken 21 of the teams’ last 22 meetings.
If the Blue Devils look remotely similar to the team that played the last three quarters against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels’ speed and athleticism pose a significant mismatch. North Carolina’s high-flying spread offense now features a revitalized ground attack behind the best running back in the ACC, Giovani Bernard.
If there’s a reason you haven’t heard much about the Tar Heels this season, it’s probably because they are ineligible to compete in the ACC Championship or postseason play because of academic violations. After posting back-to-back wins against Virginia Tech and Miami, North Carolina would likely be the favorite to win the ACC’s Coastal Division if not for their ineligibility.
Not to sound any alarms, but even with five games left in the season, Duke’s chances to reach the magical plateau of six wins seem to be running out. The Blue Devils close their campaign with arguably their five toughest ACC opponents: North Carolina, Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech and Miami. Although this team has definitely not stopped believing in itself, this season is certainly not getting any easier. If there were a time for a signature win, there’s no time like the present.
All negativity aside, there are many worse places to be than 5-2 right now, and bringing the Victory Bell back to Durham would be the perfect way to cement Duke’s first bowl berth since 1994. At his weekly media luncheon Tuesday, head coach David Cutcliffe emphasized the importance of having a strong home atmosphere in a rivalry game. North Carolina will have more than its fair share of fans in the stands, and Duke students should be there to match.
This game marks one of the few times that Duke students have had the chance to attend a football game against North Carolina. The Blue Devils have faced the Tar Heels in the final week of the season, which takes place over Thanksgiving weekend, all but four times since 1965. Students should take advantage of the opportunity to see this game under the lights at Wallace Wade.
Shooters will still be there when the game is over, and chances are it won’t be overrun by freshmen by the time you get there, seeing as they make up most of Duke’s student section every week anyway.
There will be plenty of points and a lot of passion, but if Duke gets a lift from its fans this weekend, they could hear the Victory Bell ringing through the streets of Durham. And if the Blue Devils can pull off a signature win this weekend, put an exclamation point on the evening by storming the field at Wallace Wade—how many times have we had the opportunity to do that in the last 20 years?