EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Every athlete dreams of being in the situation that the Duke players faced Saturday with 3:40 remaining in regulation. Trailing by two points, the Blue Devils had the ball on their 23 yard line with one last chance to win the game.
On that drive, Duke showed the heart and grit of a winner, and yet the result was all too familiar as Connecticut rejoiced on the sideline.
“It’s our turn,” quarterback Mike Schneider said to himself during that final drive. “It’s happened to us enough in the last couple of years. I was like, ‘It’s our turn to win this one.’”
With just six seconds left on the clock, Matt Brooks’ 36-yard field goal missed wide left, capping another win that “should have been.” It was the seventh time in the last three seasons the Blue Devils lost a game by a touchdown or less, bringing back nightmares of the Carl Franks era.
The plays of that drive were indicative of where the Duke program stands—it is taking strides in the right direction, but still has a long way to go. The young team has struggled to find an identity on the offensive side of the field during head coach Ted Roof’s short tenure, often shuffling quarterbacks in and out of the game. Saturday was different, however, and the offense responded nicely.
Chris Dapolito managed Duke’s game effectively, especially considering leading rusher Cedric Dargan had only eight carries because of a leg injury. Dapolito made just one major mistake, an interception that was returned for a touchdown to bring the Huskies within one point with 10 minutes left in the game.
After watching the entire game from the sideline as teammate Dapolito set personal marks in yards, completions and attempts, Roof called Schneider’s number in the waning moments to try to mastermind a comeback.
“Dap had a better week at practice and Mike’s a little more comfortable in the pocket, and we needed to stay in the pocket and throw the football,” Roof said about his quarterback decisions. “Mike came in and did a good job and made some good throws.”
The decision to bring in a cold quarterback in such a crucial situation was questionable, despite the fact that Schneider is a more adept passer.
“[Coach Roof] gave me about three minutes to warm up and that was it,” Schneider said. “He said ‘Go out there and make plays.’”
The drive, although marred by incompletions and penalties, seemed more motivated than most of Duke’s attempted comebacks in recent memory. Sloppiness and mental mistakes dug the Blue Devils into a seemingly insurmountable 4th-and-17 hole.
Schneider marched 43 yards, at times showing reasons for optimism, but no one in the sold-out Rentschler Field expected lowly Duke to convert this down, except maybe the players themselves. The sophomore quarterback dropped back, braced for a hit from the oncoming blitz, and threw a bullet into Ronnie Elliott’s chest along the right sideline.
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The completion signified everything that Roof and the up and coming Blue Devil program is hoping to accomplish. The players believed in their own abilities and took a major step. The drive was not the prettiest, nor was it the most efficient two-minute drill. But Duke moved the ball down the field when it needed to, and it completed a play that it almost certainly would have messed up in the past.
At that moment it no longer mattered that the Blue Devils surrendered 16 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. The team seemed determined to win and not fall short like they had so many times in the past.
Because Brooks missed a 36-yard field goal attempt from the right hash mark, people will remember this game for the botched kick. They will question why Roof did not run a play to center the ball, but that is not what should be taken out of this game.
“What I didn’t want to do is run one more play and have a bobbled snap, and some type of fumble where the ball is getting kicked out and running lose on the ground,” Roof said. “I wanted to make sure our kids had the chance to win at the end of the game.”
Just the fact that Duke was in contention late proves the team has made great strides in the past week. The Blue Devils faced an All-American caliber quarterback in Dan Orlovsky without two of their defensive captains, Kenneth Stanford and Philip Alexander (who was injured early in the game) and controlled him for much of the first three quarters. The defense finally cracked in the fourth quarter, but even then the team put itself in the chance to win.
What is often overlooked because of the excitement generated by Roof and his new coaching staff, is that the 2004 Blue Devils are a young and inexperienced group of players. They often follow great plays with poor ones. The near-win against Connecticut proves that Duke has a lot of potential if it can learn to eliminate inexperienced mistakes.
“We’ve got to find a way to make one more play,” Roof said.
It should not be long before they do.