Unlike most people in Durham on Saturday night, I was actually aware that the Blue Devils were on the road facing off with upstart Florida International in what had the potential to be a season-defining game from the opening kickoff. So I made my way over to a friend’s off-campus apartment where we would be able to tune into the ESPNU broadcast.
Duke’s first-quarter scoring explosion was encouraging. Quarterback Sean Renfree came out on target and successfully took several chances downfield with the Golden Panthers pressing up in man-to-man coverage. The Blue Devils proved equally vulnerable to the big play on defense, however, and were victimized by speedy Florida International wideout T.Y. Hilton on several occasions. Still, when all the dust settled, Renfree and his teammates held a 17-14 lead. The scoring slowed considerably, though, and Duke didn’t manage any points in the second or third quarters. The fourth quarter began with the Golden Panthers holding a 20-17 advantage.
On Florida International’s first drive of the final period, wide receiver Wayne Times caught a short pass in the flat, dodged a tackler and scampered down the sideline past Austin Gamble’s half-hearted attempt to knock him out of bounds. The end result on the field was a 34-yard touchdown and a two-possession deficit for the Blue Devils with just over 13 minutes to play. On the couch back in Durham, the play left me ready to throw in the towel, hoping my buddy would change the channel to watch one of the primetime games—Alabama at Florida or Nebraska at Wisconsin—or the MLB playoffs.
Fortunately, my friend forced me to stay tuned to the action from Miami, and I could not have been more impressed with the 31-27 come-from-behind victory that ensued. In the aftermath, I made a vow to myself that I would never again give up on Renfree or his head coach David Cutcliffe. And neither should any member of the Duke faithful.
The offense’s response to the 10-point hole was immediate, as Renfree found a streaking Donovan Varner for a 54-yard pickup on the first play from scrimmage, setting Duke up with a first-and-goal. Two gutsy runs by Juwan Thompson later, and it was a 27-24 ballgame.
After forcing Florida International to punt on their next possession, Duke was driving with a chance to take the lead when it faced a fourth-and-two from the Golden Panther 43-yard line with just over eight minutes to play. Ordinarily, I would have expected the aggressive Cutcliffe to keep his offense on the field and roll the dice on fourth down. Instead, he showed a new sense of confidence in his defense and elected to punt the football away.
Following a touchback, the defensive unit rewarded Cutcliffe for his faith with a far sweeter prize than just a stop. On the drive’s third play, defensive end Jordan DeWalt-Ondijo got upfield and knocked the ball out of Florida International quarterback Wesley Carroll’s hand as he began his throwing motion. Anthony Young-Wiseman scooped up the bouncing ball and rumbled down to the nine-yard line. Just one play later, Thompson waltzed untouched into the end zone with the game’s deciding score.
What we saw during that fourth quarter in Miami was a football team coming of age, the first time such a transformation has taken place during the Renfree Era. Two seasons ago, as a senior, Thad Lewis underwent a similar process over the course of a three-game winning streak that included road wins at N.C. State and Virginia. For Renfree, the turning point came during this one turnaround quarter as he proved that he can be the battle-tested leader of a winning team.
Running the ball effectively in the red zone and making game-changing plays on defense are two defining components of a team capable of executing in the fourth quarter and emerging victorious from tight contests. Duke showed the ability to do both of these things in that final 15 minutes. Perhaps most significantly, Cutcliffe demonstrated his belief in the running game, choosing to pound away in the red zone, and in the defense, by deciding to kick it away despite trailing late.
Cutcliffe and his team have frequently had to rely on air-it-out, high-scoring football to win games. In the late stages of an undecided game, though, this is not the way football is played. That the Blue Devils found a different way to win is a sign that this team’s maturation process is further along than many people, including myself, expected.
That’s why we owe this team our full attention as it fights every week to secure a bowl berth.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.