When Duke's 10-point lead collapsed in Saturday's 27-24 overtime win over Rice, many sports-writers inside the press box made many benign statements that implicitly translated to, "Great, I have to write another Duke blows a lead and loses by five points or less story." Human nature cannot prevent those thoughts from formulating, and after the game, players said the same cognition was going through their minds, as well.
"It's natural to think about, 'Okay, we're in overtime, got to make a play," wide receiver Khary Sharpe, who had a game high 63 receiving yards.
But redshirt freshman Mike Schneider had none of these ideas in his head.
Schneider has no super-human power to block mementos of past failures just when they seem to reoccurring; he simply has no memories of being on the field during the close losses.
It is easy to forget that this is not the same Duke football team as last year. Every offensive starter and all but two defensive starters returned for the 2003 season, making it a reasonable assumption that this year's Blue Devils would have many of the same strengths and weaknesses as in 2002.
But it is now clear that Duke has a new offensive starter, and also a new leader in redshirt freshman Schneider. Not once did he feel the Blue Devils were going to blow another lead.
"I stepped into the huddle and I just told everyone, 'We're not losing,'" Schneider said. "I really don't know how to lose from high school. I knew when I stepped in the huddle that we were going to do it."
While a member of the National Honor Society, Schneider quarterbacked Sharon High School in Sharon, Pa., to 31 wins and three district championships. Winning a game against Rice is not an accomplishment worth much lauding, but Duke needed to start somewhere. And with the win, the Blue Devils have their first back-to-back wins in the Carl Franks era.
"It feels great [to win back-to-back games]," senior running back Chris Douglas said. "It feels great to see all the students that were out there. We had a lot of fans out there today, and I think as we win more games more people will show up in the stands. I just hope the momentum keeps going, helps the ball keep rolling."
Although it is tremendous that Duke won a close game, an accomplishment Franks repeatedly said he desired, this feat should not be blown out of proportion.
It is true that Duke needed to win a close game to at least sedate the nightmares from the close losses of last season, but it is also true that Saturday did not need to be a close game.
When running back Chris Douglas dove into the endzone from the one-yard line, Duke held a 24-14 lead with 10:06 left in the game. To make matters even worse for the Owls, Rice had no momentum. After gaining 201 yards and counting 14 points on the scoreboard in the first quarter, the Owls' offense was rife with confusion, ineffectiveness and turnovers.
Rice kept fighting with its gritty triple-option offense, and eventually the mostly-effective Duke defense began to break. After a 12-play, 43-yard drive that included a tough-nosed 14-yard run by interim quarterback Greg Henderson, Owls kicker Brandon Skeen booted in a 46-yard field goal, which made the score 24-17 with 6:20 remaining in the game.
The Blue Devils responded to this challenge with a four-play drive of nothingness, and were forced to punt.
It then took Rice 13 plays to get to the Duke red zone, including a fourth-and-seven situation that ended with Henderson running for 11 yards and a fourth-and-one play that saw Henderson sprint for another 11 yards.
Rice was much more efficient in the red zone, needing only three plays to knot up the score with three seconds remaining.
But Schneider insisted that a win would come when Duke regained possession.
"I told [my teammates] on the sidelines when the defense was out there that we're going to pound the ball if we get it back," he said.
But the Blue Devils' play on offense in the overtime showed no signs of a clutch-play epiphany. After Schneider's nine-yard toss to Ben Patrick to start the extra period, the Blue Devils gained only four more yards. And this certainly was not the coaches' fault. Last season many blamed the exorbitant number of close losses on bad coaching in the final minutes, but in the overtime against Rice, the skippers were close to brilliant.
On third and 11 on the Rice 12, the Blue Devils ran an ingeniously timed play: Schneider pitched the ball to junior wide receiver Darryl Scott, who threw the ball from the left side of the field to the right side of the endzone where the pigskin directly fell into the hands of the wide-open and normally clutch Douglas.
But he dropped the ball.
Thankfully, Brent Garber, who looked shaky in his first game back since his rib injury against Western Carolina, nailed a 30-yard field goal that gave the Blue Devils a 27-24 lead.
While Duke's performance looked almost unchanged from its norms in over-time, for some reason, Rice adjusted things. After two well-executed fourth down conversions in the game-tying fourth quarter drive, Rice decided to kick a field goal when faced with a fourth and one on the Duke 16. Adding to Rice head coach Ken Hatfield's anguish, Skeen, who had just moments ago nailed a 46-yard field goal, clearly missed a 34 yarder.1
While the new enthusiasm Schneider has brought to the Blue Devils in the fourth quarter should be duly noted, there were more reminders of last season's fourth quarter three-mile islands than even a neuralyzer from the Men in Black movies could make one forget.
The Duke-Rice game was not a close game that Duke held on to with clutch play. The Duke-Rice game was not a close game until traditional Blue Devil wretched clutch play made it one. Franks said he was happy to finally have won a close game, but he could not possibly be happy that Saturday's contest was a close game.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.