They played to win the game
It was clear from the beginning that the Blue Devils would do whatever it took to secure a program-record 11th win.
On Duke's first play of the game, quarterback Anthony Boone took the snap and handed the ball off to Josh Snead on what appeared to be a simple run up the middle. But Snead stopped and pitched the ball back to Boone, who fired downfield to a streaking Jamison Crowder. Boone's pass was broken up, but the aggressive play call set the tone for the rest of the game.
"We came to play to win," Blue Devils' head coach David Cutcliffe said. "That's what we were going to do."
The Duke offense, which racked up 661 total yards and scored 48 points, came out more aggressive in the first half than it had all season. The Blue Devils scored on all six of their first half drives, including five touchdowns.
In his last game at Duke before heading to Florida to coach for Will Muschamp, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper dialed up deep passing plays throughout the first half. The Blue Devils traded in their traditional short range passing game for a downfield attack that resulted in five completions of 20 or more yards.
But it was not just aggressive play calling that illustrated Duke's determination to win. Cutcliffe turned to special teams to shock the Aggies in the first half and take a 38-17 lead into the locker room.
On Texas A&M's last possession of the first quarter, the Aggies offense stalled and was forced to punt from its own 39-yard line. Duke brought pressure off the edge, and Snead got a hand on Drew Kaser's punt, skyrocketing the ball high into the air behind the line of scrimmage. Texas A&M would recover the blocked punt, preventing the Blue Devils from returning it for a touchdown, but Duke took over at the Aggies' 24-yard line and would score just four plays later. The Blue Devils' first blocked punt of the season provided a huge swing in momentum and allowed Duke to jump out to a 14-3 lead.
After scoring a touchdown to go up 35-17, the Blue Devils dialed up their second big special teams play. Jack Willoughby placed a beautiful onside kick that fell right into the hands of Juwan Thompson and gave Duke possession with less than three minutes to play in the half. The onside kick came after a four-minute touchdown drive, and the Blue Devils would hold the ball for the rest of the half, keeping Johnny Manziel and the Aggie offense off the field for most of the second quarter.
"Knowing that we were getting the ball first in the second half, I thought it was a good time to kind of put a hammer on the situation," Cutcliffe said. "Sometime that's a good time to go ahead and take a shot and take an advantage if you think you have a good opportunity."
Duke's aggressive play calling continued in the second half. The Blue Devils took the third quarter's opening kickoff and marched all the way to the Texas A&M 35-yard line, where they found themselves in a fourth-and-1 situation. Instead of opting for the long field goal, Duke called a play-action pass that resulted in an incompletion and a turnover.
The Blue Devils converted two fourth down attempts in the first half, and went 1-for-2 in the second half.
"I knew we were going for it in those circumstances even before we got in the stadium today," Cutcliffe said. "We made two of them in the first half that ended up resulting in touchdown drives. We don't make that one and it's frustrating, but it is part of it as it all falls in. I don't regret any of those."
In a game that ended with 100 points between the two sides, both coaches were willing to make risky decisions.
Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin made it clear after the game that he was willing to take chances late in the fourth quarter if the situation called for it. With Duke up by three points and driving towards the endzone, Sumlin approached Manziel and told him the gameplan if the Blue Devils took a 10-point lead.
"I walked down to him and I said, 'We're going to get the ball, we're going to score, and then we're going to onside kick and we're going to win the game,'" Sumlin said.
An interception return for a touchdown put the Aggies up by four, and Sumlin never had to call for the onside kick. But Sumlin, like Cutcliffe, came to Atlanta willing to put it all on the line to go home with a win.
For the Blue Devils, it may be difficult to find a positive message in such a crushing defeat. But Duke took advantage of its spot in the limelight of college football and pulled no punches in its attempt to defeat one the SEC's best teams led by a former Heisman winner. The aggressive play calling and high-risk, high-reward decisions turned the game into the most exciting postseason contest to date—the game's overnight television rating of 5.3 marks the highest rating for a non-BCS bowl game on ESPN since at least 2000.
"It grows our program, and it's going to continue to grow our program," Cutcliffe said. "I think it was great we had this time slot. We're recruiting quality people that can really play football well. That's what people hopefully saw tonight and will continue to see from Duke football."