There are two types of sports movies—ones that end with a team achieving the ultimate triumph and ones that end with a team pushing itself to the limit, only to come up short by the slimmest of margins.
Duke’s first postseason appearance since 1994 was bookended by Hollywood endings. The Blue Devils had their ultimate triumph when they stunned archrival North Carolina in the final seconds to earn bowl eligibility, and Duke’s magical run to the Belk Bowl ended in the most gut-wrenching, heartbreaking way possible.
After playing a nearly flawless first quarter of football and subsequently allowing Cincinnati to get right back into the driver’s seat with 27 unanswered points, the Blue Devils scratched and clawed their way back into the contest. Despite a number of breaks that did not go its way, Duke found itself with a golden opportunity—the team stood a few yards away from the game’s decisive score as the clock ticked down.
The Blue Devils appeared destined for the same euphoric Hollywood ending they experienced by vanquishing the Tar Heels. But after fumbling the ball six yards from paydirt and allowing the Bearcats’ star tight end to hit the seam for an 83-yard backbreaker, it felt as though Hollywood's best had rewritten the ending to Duke’s story this season.
Al Pacino said it best in the movie Any Given Sunday. Football is the consummate game of inches.
“Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean… one half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it,” said his character, a football coach. “One half second too slow too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second.”
There is no question that Duke had a number of opportunities to defeat an athletic and talented Cincinnati squad. But inch by inch, the Blue Devils allowed these chances to slip through their grasp.
“We didn’t finish our opportunities,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “It was as simple as that.”
Running backs Juwan Thompson and Jela Duncan had chances to help Duke put this game away early. Thompson ran a beautiful wheel route down the right sideline and quarterback Sean Renfree found him for what appeared to be a sure touchdown. The pass hit Thompson’s outstretched fingers, but fell harmlessly to the turf for an incompletion. The Blue Devils would have to settle for a field goal.
Duncan’s chance came when Duke boasted a 16-3 lead and threatened to increase its advantage to 20 points early in the second quarter. Renfree found Duncan with a pass over the middle, and the freshman rumbled powerfully toward the goal line. But as he lunged for the goal line, Duncan was stripped by Cincinnati’s Greg Blair just 12 inches outside of the end zone.
“This really is a game of inches,” senior wide receiver Conner Vernon said. “There were just so many momentum swings in that game—it was really exciting. We were that close a few times and we came up short.”
After the Bearcats had fought back into the game and took a 17-16 lead, Duke had the chance to take the lead back heading into halftime with a field goal attempt as time expired. Ross Martin, who had earned freshman All-American honors this season, stepped up and nailed a career-long 53-yard field goal. But the play was blown dead due to a substitution penalty by the Bearcats, and when Martin attempted the kick again, this time from 48 yards away, he missed wide left by a matter of inches.
Duke thrived this season on taking care of the football and forcing turnovers, but could accomplish neither against Cincinnati. So when Josh Snead took a handoff up the middle and coughed up Duke’s second fumble inside Cincinnati’s 10-yard line, the Blue Devils’ first bowl appearance since 1994 ended with poetic justice.
Duke fell to their Bearcats because it lost the battle one inch at a time. And although the Blue Devils showed flashes of some of the best football they have played all season in an exciting contest, it was the little things and the smallest of margins that ultimately decided this game.
“That play is just magnified more because it was at the very end of the game,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Brandon Connette said. “There were plays in the first and second quarter where if we were able to capitalize, it wouldn’t have even mattered at that point. There are plenty of plays that we left out on the field throughout the entire game.”
As Blue Devils press forward into the 2013 campaign, Cutcliffe hopes that his team will no longer be satisfied with the mere thought of bowl eligibility, but will be able to post a winning record and compete for a conference championship. Although that poses a daunting task for a team that still hasn’t won a bowl game in 51 years and counting, Duke continues to carry itself like a team that is much closer to winning bowl games and competing for conference championships than it is to sitting at home watching other teams play bowl games every December.
If there’s one thing the Blue Devils learned about themselves Thursday, it’s that they may only be a few inches away.