MIAMI — For the second straight week, Duke lost a lead against a ranked team. But unlike last week, when the Blue Devils were simply manhandled by Georgia Tech in the last three quarters, factors outside of Duke’s control played a part in the Hurricanes’ eventual victory.
Trailing 20-16 early in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils were marching down the field. Quarterback Thaddeus Lewis had completed four passes on the drive, and running back Desmond Scott had picked up 20 yards of his own to put Duke at the Miami 10-yard line. On first down, Jay Hollingsworth gained four yards and it looked like the Blue Devils were in prime position to retake the lead.
But on second down, the screen pass that was called was well-covered by the Hurricane defense.
With nowhere to go, Lewis threw the ball at the ground, seemingly near a receiver. Then a yellow flag appeared for intentional grounding, and the Duke sideline looked on in absolute disbelief.
“Their guy came and tackled our back,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “Everybody in America teaches their quarterback to throw the ball at the feet of the back when he gets knocked down and that’s what we did.”
The questionable call put Duke in a tough spot on third down from the 13-yard line, and Lewis’ pass over the middle was batted down in traffic. The Blue Devils brought kicker Will Snyderwine on for a 31-yard field goal attempt, hoping to get within a point of the Hurricanes and at least get something out of the possession.
But the normally accurate Snyderwine, who was 3-for-3 on the day prior to this attempt, pushed the field goal wide right. Miami promptly took over, and Hurricanes’ quarterback Jacory Harris quickly shredded the Duke secondary. After completing a couple of medium-length passes, Harris lobbed up a throw to 6-foot-3 Leonard Hankerson. The wideout, who had a huge size advantage on 5-foot-10 cornerback Chris Rwabukamba, easily hauled in the pass, bulling his way into the end zone and putting the Blue Devils in an 11-point hole.
Any hopes of a miraculous Duke comeback were dashed when, on the next Blue Devil offensive series, Lewis’ pass over the middle was picked off by Darryl Sharpton. The linebacker raced down the left sideline for 73 yards, putting an exclamation point on a disastrous fourth quarter for the Blue Devils.
“It took the wind out of our sails,” Cutcliffe said. “Our defense had been on the field a great deal, and when we go down and miss a field goal, it was difficult for our defense to charge up again.”
In a span of seven minutes, the game was transformed from nail biter to disappointment. And the sequence overshadowed a great effort by Duke for the first three quarters. The Blue Devils had kept Jacory Harris and the two-headed monster of Javarris James and Graig Cooper in check. On offense, Duke was able to move the ball with relative ease. In particular, Donovan Varner was repeatedly open over the middle of the field, as he finished with eight catches for 165 yards.
But the Blue Devils struggled again in the red zone, as they have all season. And this time, a dubious call was just another reason Duke failed to score a touchdown, as opposed to attempting a field goal.
“Momentum is all part of the game,” quarterback Thaddeus Lewis said. “When you don’t get it, it swings the other way.”
The loss means that the Blue Devils are eliminated from bowl contention, and the nine Duke seniors will be playing their last game next Saturday against Wake Forest.
Although neither Cutcliffe nor Lewis would come out and say it, they both pointed at the intentional grounding penalty as a turning point in the game. Lewis wouldn’t call the penalty bogus—the senior just mentioned that “maybe there’s some rule in the rulebook that I don’t know about.”
The end result was that Miami, which had been sluggish all game long, was able to escape the Blue Devils and turn the home crowd’s boos into cheers. But the final score does not do justice to the way the game was actually played, and Duke can take comfort in how hard it fought against an opponent with much better athletes.
“It’s frustrating to have a lead in the fourth and not keep it, but I could not be more proud of the football team,” Cutcliffe said. “Our seniors now realize that their bowl dreams have slipped away, but what they’ve built over the past two years will not ever slip away.”
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