Duke football seeks first bowl win since 1961

Duke falls to Cincinnati 48-34 at the Belk Bowl
Duke falls to Cincinnati 48-34 at the Belk Bowl

ATLANTA—The Blue Devils outplayed Cincinnati in many aspects of the 2012 Belk Bowl, but thanks to some crucial mistakes Duke's first bowl trip in 18 years came to a sour ending.

Three hundred and seventy days later, the 2013 Duke squad has a chance to notch the program's first bowl win since 1961, when the No. 22 Blue Devils take on No. 20 Texas A&M at the Georgia Dome in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

"We all know the taste that was left in our mouth a year ago. I can promise you these guys do. I haven't lost it yet," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "So it's extremely important that we prepare well and play well, then the chips are going to fall where they are, but we're not going to leave anything out there if we can certainly help it."

The taste that the Belk Bowl loss left in Duke's mouth lingered until the first day of spring practice. When Cutcliffe assembled the team for its first meeting of the 2013 season, there wasn't much left to say. The team looked forward to a new year, and in the process created the mantra that would change the Duke football program.

"I saw and felt the same things that I was feeling in that team, in the leadership of that team," Cutcliffe said. "The term 'finish' is one that the players coined themselves. We didn't finish. We didn't finish the fourth quarter. We didn't finish the season."

Finish was the centerpiece of an initiative that Cutcliffe refers to as "55," popularized by the phrase "55 to stay alive" from a government campaign to end speeding in the 1970s. The five pillars of 55 were what Cutcliffe considered the five keys to winning a football game—alignment, assignment, effort, execution and finish.

Duke (10-3) had three goals heading into the 2013 season—finish plays, finish games and finish the season. The Blue Devils have had no problem finishing games to the tune of allowing just 3.4 points per game in the fourth quarter.

"I think when you see a team that plays that way that's given them the opportunity in the fourth quarter to be in those football games," Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said. "When you win close games the way they've done this year, you gain confidence. That's what I see. I see a team that's well-coached, well-disciplined, and very, very confident and poised at the end of the game, which means it's a really difficult challenge for us."

The Blue Devils hit the field with a newfound confidence in 2013. They made their biggest plays in their biggest moments and played with confidence—a word that had not been used to describe Duke's football program for a long time. One year after entering uncharted waters for bowl preparations, the Blue Devils now consider themselves to be bowl veterans.

"It was a first-time experience. We really had no one in the program other than the coaches that could kind of guide them as to what to expect," Cutcliffe said when reflecting on last year's bowl preparation. "This year our leadership, our guys talked to our younger players at home about what to expect. What they expected as a team from them. I don't think there is any leadership like peer leadership, so going back-to-back, it gave us that opportunity."

Duke's magical 2013 campaign included 10 victories and a second straight bowl trip for the first time, All-America honors, national coach of the year awards, a national ranking and the end of a stigma of mediocrity that spanned decades into the past.

With a matchup against the Aggies (8-4) looming, the Blue Devils now have a chance to finish the season with one final milestone—a bowl victory for the first time since the Kennedy administration.

"We need to leave the next year's team in a good position, and the best way to do that is to get that 11th win, something that's unprecedented around Duke University," redshirt senior offensive guard Dave Harding said. "We know that this is the biggest stage that we have played on, the date, primetime, on New Year's Eve, and we have a lot of recruits watching and a lot of naysayers, and we are ready to prove them wrong, just like we have the rest of this year."


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