Duke has always seemed to find a way to lose big games. Saturday night, a massive reversal of fortune sent the Blue Devils to its first bowl game since 1994.
The Blue Devils played three dominant quarters against North Carolina. Duke’s rushing attack showed up for the first time this season as the trio of Josh Snead, Jela Duncan and Juwan Thompson carried the ball a total of 48 times. The team’s total of 234 yards on the ground was a season-high. The Blue Devils’ defensive intensity peaked in high-pressure situations, holding the Tar Heels to 4-for-15 on third downs.
Despite taking a 23-9 lead into the fourth quarter, Duke’s bad habits resurfaced, and it appeared this might be the type of loss we had become accustomed to in recent years. Missed tackles, busted coverages and ill-advised penalties allowed North Carolina to march down the field on consecutive touchdown drives.
And as the lead deteriorated, memories of Duke’s haunted past continued to grow. We began to remember why North Carolina had taken 21 of its last 22 matchups against the Blue Devils. We thought back to the 20-point first quarter lead Duke blew at Virginia Tech last weekend with its bowl eligibility on the line. With one of the flukiest touchdowns you’ll ever see, the continuation of Duke’s bowl drought seemed to be nothing short of divine intervention.
SLIDESHOW: FIVE KEY PLAYS TO DUKE BEATING UNC
2012/10/22 5 Key Plays: FB vs. UNC - Images by Duke Student Publishing Co. Duke Chronicle
Clinging to a 26-23 lead in the game’s closing minutes, North Carolina wide receiver Erik Highsmith caught a pass from quarterback Bryn Renner and found space in the open field. Highsmith was met in by Duke safety Walt Canty, who made a remarkable defensive effort to punch the ball out at Duke’s 22-yard line. Cornerback Ross Cockrell was poised to pounce on the loose ball and seal the victory for the Blue Devils but allowed the fumble to squirt away toward his own end zone. North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard picked it up at Duke’s 4-yard line and scored one of the most improbable touchdowns in the history of the battle for the Victory Bell to give the Tar Heels a 30-26 lead.
“I thought I blew the game to be honest with you,” Cockrell said. “I thought I blew it.”
He wasn’t the only one. With a capacity crowd on hand at Wallace Wade Stadium, 33,941 fans were left in utter disbelief at the scene that was playing itself out on the field. With just 3:06 remaining in the game, the Blue Devils had to go 87 yards to score the game-winning touchdown. After settling for four Ross Martin field goals throughout the contest, three more points would do them no good—they had to go for six.
But Duke did not respond like a team that always seemed to find a way to lose, but rather a team that always knew it could win with the ball in its hands on the final drive.
“What I went down and told the offensive line right then was, ‘You know what, they blew it. They scored with too much time left on the clock. This is exactly what we want, right here. Exactly where we want to be. This is one you’ll remember.’ And they took care of the business,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said.
Quarterback Sean Renfree and the Blue Devil offense answered the call and cemented their legacy with a drive for the ages. With its back against the wall, Duke relied on its most dependable weapon, the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions. Despite being neutralized for much of Saturday’s contest, wide receiver Conner Vernon was just where he needed to be on Duke’s final drive, converting on two crucial third downs.
But the third time the Blue Devils faced third down on the game’s ultimate drive, a draw play to Duncan fell two yards short. With 19 seconds left on the clock, Duke hit a fork in the road—it was win or go home.
And after 18 consecutive years of calling bowl week the offseason, this team found itself on the right side of history. Renfree delivered a strike just between the linebacker and the cornerback, and sophomore wide receiver Jamison Crowder created a moment that will echo throughout the cavernous confines of Wallace Wade for decades.
Some may say you couldn’t have scripted a better ending for a game between Duke and North Carolina, or that the underdog Blue Devils were deserving of a Hollywood ending to break a drought that spanned nearly two decades. Although both of these things may be true, Crowder’s last-second heroics signified that a new era of Duke football has arrived—this team is finally playing with a winning mentality and has a bowl bid to show for it.
As Gatorade showers flowed and a spraypaint mist of royal blue hung over the battlefield, it was hard to believe the shot to the gut this team had taken just three minutes earlier. The lowest low led to the highest high.