If home is where your fans are, Duke football hasn’t had a home in a long time.
Wallace Wade Stadium, the Blue Devils’ home site for football games since 1929, has seen both the best and the worst of Duke football—from the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s and hosting the 1942 Rose Bowl to an 18-year bowl drought that was snapped two weeks ago. In recent memory, the place that a casual observer could only call “that football stadium next to Cameron,” has hardly provided Duke with home-field advantage. This season, however, Wallace Wade Stadium has played an integral role in the Blue Devils’ first bowl berth in nearly two decades.
It doesn’t take very long to analyze Duke football’s attendance patterns since its last bowl game in 1994. Each season, with brimming enthusiasm that it could finally be the season the Blue Devils could break the streak, home openers always drew a decent crowd. But as the losses piled up and the seasons’ bowl hopes began to slip away, so would Duke’s fans. Last season’s home finale against Georgia Tech, which drew just 18,747 fans, was the least attended game in David Cutcliffe’s tenure as head coach and the Blue Devils’ smallest home crowd since 2006—a season in which they finished 0-12.
Duke has seen the opposite phenomenon this season. As usual, the team drew an inflated crowd of 31,117 for its home opener—which was actually the smallest such crowd in the Cutcliffe era—for a 46-26 win against Florida International. Although the team experienced a similar second-game drop as it has in recent years, its home crowds continued to grow with each Blue Devil victory. On the precipice of its first bowl eligibility in nearly two decades, Duke’s game against North Carolina was attended by 33,941 fans, the team’s second-largest home attendance since the 2001 season.
The Blue Devils’ last-second victory against the Tar Heels was a telling sign of what the atmosphere in Wallace Wade Stadium can be every single week. Walking into the stadium, there was an undeniable electricity in the air, an excitement that probably hasn’t been present for at least 18 years. They fed off its home crowd’s energy, and the result was the most thrilling finish Wallace Wade Stadium has ever seen.
Entering Saturday’s contest against No. 10 Clemson, Duke is a perfect 5-0 at home this season. A team that once played each home game trying its hardest not to lose now steps onto its home field with the mentality that it can beat any opponent that it faces. A part of this new mentality can be attributed to defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who definitely knew where to find the right inspiration.
The week before the Blue Devils’ first game of the 2012 season against Florida International, Knowles and his defense resorted to unconventional training methods—with Duke’s first test of the season looming just days away, the unit put away their game film and watched The Lion King. Anybody who grew up in the 1990s knows that The Lion King contains more worldly wisdom than a parent, teacher and football coach combined. Sure enough, Knowles’ plan to inspire his defense worked. By the time the classic movie was over, the team referred to Wallace Wade Stadium as Pride Rock. Five grueling contests later, the Blue Devils continue to protect their home turf.
“I think it just stuck,” defensive tackle Sydney Sarmiento said. “We understand that this is our home. Don’t let somebody come into your house and steal all your stuff. You want to fight for everything you have.”
The rubber meets the road this weekend as the Tigers attempt to take Pride Rock for Duke’s first home loss of the season. Duke has not defeated a ranked opponent since 1994, a season in which they suffered just one home loss. Although Clemson poses a major challenge, the Blue Devils have played its best football at home this season, scoring at least 33 points in each of their five home games t and defeating opponents by an average margin of 21.8 points.
Following a crushing 48-7 loss to Florida State last weekend, Duke is reeling and in need of a return home. The Blue Devils have rebounded from each of their first two road losses of the year against Stanford and Virginia Tech with home wins against N.C. Central and North Carolina, and hope to accomplish a similar feat this weekend as they continue to push for the ACC Coastal Division crown. If there’s a time this team needs some home-field advantage, it’s now.