The flash of blinding camera lights and swirl of questions from reporters on deadline brought the moments back into real time. Blue Devil running back Josh Snead sat in a chair outside the Duke locker room and glanced two seats to his left. He saw his quarterback, Anthony Boone, who blamed their team's 52-48 loss on the two fourth-quarter interceptions he threw, one of which went for the game-winning touchdown.
There was the pain of a near-victory turning into a crushing defeat, but Snead understood Boone's agony better than anyone—one year ago, it was Snead who blamed himself for his team's bowl loss after fumbling the ball on the 5-yard line in the closing minutes of the Belk Bowl.
"Anthony—he's my guy, man. We grew up together, and we came in together," Snead said. "No one wants to be in that situation. No one wants to be where they feel like the weight was all on them. But it's not all on him. We're a team."
Before the fourth-quarter interceptions, Boone was in the midst of the best game of his Duke career. He led the Blue Devil offense to score on all six of its drives in the first half, helping Duke out to a 38-17 halftime lead. The redshirt junior finished the game 29-for-45, throwing for 427 yards and three touchdowns, adding a fourth score with an 11-yard run in the second quarter.
Boone was particularly gusty on his team's final touchdown drive, which he capped off by hitting tight end David Reeves for a 20-yard touchdown to give the Blue Devils a 48-38 lead. With a crowd of nearly 68,000 raucous fans in the stand and seemingly all of the momentum working against him, Boone converted four crucial third downs on the six-minute touchdown drive, feeling the pressure from the Aggie defense and remaining poised in the pocket to hit receivers in tight windows over the middle.
The Weddington, N.C., native was at his best on third down, completing 11-of-12 passes in third-down situations, many of which moved the sticks. Boone's lone incompletion on third down, which came on Duke's final offensive drive, was followed by a comp.etion on fourth down that resulted in a conversion.
"There's no blame. He's the guy that's got the ball in his hands," Cutcliffe said of his quarterback. "He played awesome. Can't play much better than he played."
But with a chance to seal his team's first bowl win since 1961 in the closing minutes, Boone made what head coach David Cutcliffe would later call "a really bad decision." He tried to fit a pass to freshman Johnell Barnes into a tight window and Texas A&M's Toney Hurd, Jr. undercut the route. Hurd needed one step before he hit a second gear and flew down the sidelines for a touchdown.
Like Boone, Snead played the best game of his career before his fumble in the 2012 Belk Bowl, racking up a career-high 107 yards. But it was Snead's mistake in the final minutes that haunted him during the offseason, just as Boone's interceptions will likely do the same.
"Nobody is going to play a perfect game. You are going to make mistakes, it's just how you face the adversity," Snead said. "Anthony is a great leader. He's a captain now, so he's going to come back next year and lead this team to another bowl game."
One year and six days removed from his fatal mistake, Snead did not shy away from the spotlight in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The redshirt junior had one of the most complete games of his Duke career under the bright lights of the Georgia Dome, racking up 104 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries, catching three passes for 21 yards and a second score and coming up with a crucial blocked punt in the first quarter that gave his team significant momentum swing.
Throughout the 2013 season, Snead used the Belk Bowl fumble as a constant chip on his shoulder, fueling his competitive fire. Although the running back was crushed in the minutes following the game, he said that the pain he felt for his teammate a year later was worse.
If there is any consolation that Boone can take from experiencing the lowest of lows, it is that one of his classmates has faced the same odds and emerged a better leader and football player. Fittingly, the start of a new year came just minutes after Duke's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss, and with it came the opportunity for Boone to take his first steps toward a new season.
"It hurts. It's going to hurt," Snead said. "You just have to get over it and come back next year even stronger and better."