Even when the game seemed out of reach in the second quarter, even when the momentum seemed to be turning against them late in the fourth, the Blue Devils remained grounded—each twist and turn on the road to a historic comeback was a scenario they had encountered before.
"It is extremely difficult to go down 22-0 on the road in a conference game and then come back and win by 13 points," Cutcliffe said. "I think our guys believed we belong.... We earned relevance, and we'll see what we can build it to from here."
Duke could not move the ball on offense in the early-going, managing just 45 total yards in the first quarter. When Virginia running back Kevin Parks front-flipped his way into the end zone for his third touchdown of the contest with 5:49 remaining in the second period, a Cavalier squad that had allowed 48 points to Ball State at home and missed a last-second field goal to lose to Maryland by a point in its last two games looked as though it could not be stopped.
The Blue Devils were on the other end of a similar situation last year, jumping out to a 20-0 first quarter lead against Virginia Tech on the road before allowing 41 unanswered points to fall to the Hokies.
"I think the more veteran your team is, they've lived a lot of experiences," Cutcliffe said. "It certainly can help when they have seen it or been a part of it one way or the other."
Even as Duke found its offensive rhythm, taking a 25-22 lead on a 47-yard dump and run from Brandon Connette to Braxton Deaver, both teams had a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter. The Blue Devil defense was playing lights out, forcing the Cavaliers into three-and-outs on five consecutive drives and keeping Virginia from picking up a first down from midway through the second quarter until the beginning of the fourth.
Back in 2011, Duke played a near-perfect second half defensively, allowing Wake Forest to pick up just 81 yards of offense in the final two quarters. But 66 of those yards came on a Chris Givens touchdown catch in the closing minutes. After the Blue Devils had stormed back from a 17-0 hole to take a 23-17 lead, the Blue Devils left Winston-Salem broken-hearted.
Clinging to a three-point lead in Saturday's game, Virginia picked up its first first down in more than a quarter when Duke committed a holding penalty to give the Cavaliers new life. The Blue Devil defense held strong, forcing Virginia into a third-and-18. Quarterback David Watford's pass sailed high and appeared to be headed into the arms of safety Corbin McCarthy for a surefire interception, but the ball bounced off McCarthy's chest and careened into the air, landing safely in the arms of Parks for 21 yards and a first down.
Near-turnovers turning fatal nearly haunted Duke last season. With the Blue Devils clinging to a four-point advantage against North Carolina, Ross Cockrell failed to dive on a fumble that was scooped up by the Tar Heels' Giovani Bernard for a touchdown. That play gave North Carolina a brief lead before Jamison Crowder's last-second heroics sent Duke to its first bowl game in 18 years.
Tipped passes have been especially troublesome for the Blue Devils. Finally poised to stop Georgia Tech's triple-option attack in their matchup last season, it was a tipped pass that fell into the arms of offensive lineman Ray Beno that ultimately did Duke in, giving the Yellow Jackets an insurmountable swing in momentum.
But Parks' catch did not spell doom for Duke Saturday. Virginia made it to the edge of field goal range on that drive, but Alec Vozenilek pulled a 44-yarder wide left to preserve the Blue Devils' lead. Deaver caught his second touchdown pass of the evening, this time from Anthony Boone, on Duke's next drive to seal the victory.
"We might get ourselves down, but we've prided ourselves, and that was one of our missions, was to finish games in the third and fourth quarter," said defensive end Kenny Anunike, whose Duke team has defeated Virginia in five of his six collegiate seasons. "Because I don't care if you're blowing us out 80-0 in the first half, if we score 81 in the second half we are going to win that game."
Heading back to Virginia Tech next weekend in search of its sixth win of the year—guaranteeing a bowl trip for the second straight year, something that has never happened in 101 seasons of Duke football—the Blue Devils will face another hostile road environment, this time against a ranked opponent.
Cutcliffe said his team's ability to rely on the successes and failures of its past is contributing to a more level-headed and confident Duke team.
"There's a difference in believing you can win and starting to think you should win," Cutcliffe said. "I believe they think they should win, and I believe they went to Virginia believing they should win. That kind of confidence is not false if you're absolutely committed to preparation and you believe you can go out there and back it up."