With starting quarterback Anthony Boone sitting on the sidelines nursing a broken collarbone, the Blue Devils fell to Pittsburgh 58-55 in front of a sparse home crowd at Wallace Wade Stadium. Duke allowed nearly 600 yards of total offense in that Sept. 21 game as a late comeback attempt fell short.
The loss dropped the Blue Devils to 2-2 on the season. Boone had no timetable for his return, and the Duke defense looked every bit as porous as the group that allowed 49.2 points per game in a five-game losing skid to end the 2012 season. It was the type of loss that could send an otherwise-promising season spiraling out of control.
The opposite happened—more than two months later, the Blue Devils have not lost since.
"That’s when it really settled in for me that we have a great team," redshirt senior cornerback Ross Cockrell said. "Even with all the ups and downs in that game, a lot of negative things happened for us. Defensively, we gave up a ton of big plays, but we fought to the very end of that game—a game we should have been out of, I think."
Despite all the negative takeaways on both sides of the ball, Cockrell said it was his team's loss to the Panthers that showed the physicality and resilience that has led the team on its current eight-game winning streak.
"I was talking to [head coach David Cutcliffe] after that game, and I said, ‘Even after all the bad things that happened to us, we still were only three points away,’" Cockrell said. "And that’s when I think I knew that we had a special team and that we had a special season ahead of us."
Slowly but surely, the Blue Devils built the pieces it would need to take the Coastal Division crown. After eking out an ugly win against Troy on Homecoming weekend, Duke began to look like a different football team. Boone returned, but the redshirt junior struggled, leaving the defense to grind out low-scoring affairs. Instead of jumping out to 20-point first quarter leads like the Blue Devils did last season against Virginia Tech, Duke fell behind early in games and had to claw its way back into contests. Turnovers turned into points—points turned into wins.
Cutcliffe often harps on the three phases necessary to winning a football game—offense, defense and special teams. During this eight-game winning streak, the Blue Devils have won games with only one or two of these phases playing efficiently. Fittingly, it took plays from all three phases to beat North Carolina and wrap up a season for the history books.
Duke's offense moved effectively through the air and marched down the field—just like it had in wins against N.C. Central, Navy and Miami—en route to the game-winning field goal. The Blue Devil defense came up with a turnover to seal the victory, just like it did in wins against Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. And an opportunistic play on special teams by redshirt freshman DeVon Edwards gave Duke the spark it needed to prevail, just like it did four weeks ago against N.C. State.
"It went back to all three phases," Cutcliffe said. "All three phases in that last three, four minutes of the game had to step up and make plays to enable us to win. So how appropriate is that?"
Saturday's win was about more than just the first 10-win Duke team ever. It was about more than a trip to the ACC championship game or earning respect from other big-time college football programs. It was about bringing a journey full-circle—the culmination of a roller-coaster ride that ended with the realization of a dream Cutcliffe brought to Duke six years ago.
"We’ve never really been expected win," Boone said. "It’s like a shark, once you taste blood for the first time, you know you just have to keep doing it. That’s our mentality right now. We know how to win and we’re going to go out there and do what it takes to win the game."