EL PASO, Texas—Another year, another thrilling bowl game for Duke.
And although this time the Blue Devils were the ones making the comeback, the result was the same.
In its third consecutive bowl game, Duke fell 36-31 to No. 15 Arizona State at Sun Bowl Stadium Saturday afternoon after redshirt senior quarterback Anthony Boone was intercepted in the end zone by Kweishi Brown with 45 seconds left with his team driving for the go-ahead score.
Brown outfought Duke's Jamison Crowder for the ball to seal back-to-back 10-win seasons for the Sun Devils and deny the Blue Devils the same accomplishment.
"[Crowder] is one of the best receivers in the country, so you've got to give him a shot," Boone said. "[Brown] just made a better play. At times that's how it happens—you can't blame anybody. Their defense makes plays."
As was the case in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Texas A&M, Boone was unable to make the big play his team needed to capture its first bowl win in 54 seasons, despite helping the Blue Devils (9-4) mount a valiant comeback. After a slow start, Boone finished 15-of-31 for 193 yards and two touchdowns in his final collegiate game and will leave the program 19-3 in the regular season and 0-3 in the postseason as a starter.
Boone and the offense struggled early on as Duke fell behind 20-3, a different start after blowing big leads in its previous efforts to end the team's bowl-win drought of more than 50 seasons. This time, the Blue Devils played from behind and came all the way back, taking a 31-30 lead with 5:03 left in the game on a trick play on fourth-and-two from the Arizona State 12-yard line.
Crowder—who returned a punt 68 yards to the end zone in the first half to bring Duke within three points at halftime—took a jet sweep and found his high school teammate, Issac Blakeney, to give the Blue Devils their first lead. Despite normally throwing with his right hand, Crowder sprinted hard to his left and made a good enough throw with his left hand to tie the game at 30 on one of the game's many jaw-dropping plays.
The touchdown helped Blakeney redeem himself after the senior dropped a pass inside the Arizona State 10-yard line in the second quarter and fumbled with Duke in scoring range in the third quarter. Blakeney's seventh score of the year gave the Blue Devils the momentum late in a bowl game once again.
It was short-lived.
On the ensuing kickoff, Arizona State's Kalen Ballage found a seam and returned the ball inside the Duke five-yard line, where running back Demario Richard took a shovel pass and punched in his fourth touchdown of the game for the Sun Devils (10-3). The freshman's four scores tied the Sun Bowl record for most touchdowns in a single game.
"If you give up a play in the kicking game, generally it will haunt you," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "Kickoff coverage has been great for us and it's been at times an Achilles heel. It's the only phase of the kicking game at times that's been even close to an Achilles heel."
The Blue Devils got the ball back with 4:45 left with a chance to pull off a thrilling comeback, but after Boone found Crowder for 43 yards on third down to put Duke in position for the win, the Weddington, N.C., native's costly throw in the end zone sealed his team's fate.
Duke had already taken a timeout in the second half, so Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly—who completed 24-of-34 passes for two touchdowns and no turnovers and sparked his team's hot start—was able to run out the clock in the victory formation.
After it looked like Kelly and company were on their way to a runaway win with four scores on their first four possessions, the Blue Devils showed why they have won 19 games the past two seasons.
Crowder and junior running back Shaquille Powell sparked Duke's comeback, as Powell had a career day and Crowder's passing and return touchdowns showcased his versatility. The senior also tied fellow Blue Devil Conner Vernon's ACC career receptions mark with his 283rd late in the game. Crowder finished with seven receptions for 102 yards to cap off his career.
Powell finished with 29 carries for 117 yards and three receptions for 52 yards; his receptions keyed the drive that brought Duke within 10 after the Blue Devils fell behind by 17 to start the game.
Despite struggling early, Duke rallied on both sides of the ball and actually ended up outgaining the high-octane Sun Devils 400-392 by game's end. After letting a slow start snowball against North Carolina late in the season, this time around, the Blue Devils showed the toughness that makes their head coach say they're "a top-25 team."
"Our mindset is to play four quarters, 60 minutes, three and a half hours, however long it takes to win a game," Boone said. "That's just who we are as a program."
The loss was gut-wrenching for Duke, which used a 30-yard pass on a fake punt by Will Monday to Johnell Barnes to set up its the go-ahead score from Crowder to Blakeney. Earlier in the fourth quarter, Barnes dove into the end zone on a broken play to bring the Blue Devils within six, the sophomore's first career touchdown.
The Blue Devils will look to replace Boone, Crowder and the rest of its historic senior class and end its bowl-win drought next season. The team's 19 wins in two seasons are the most in a two-year span in program history.
"At this moment, it's not about losing," Cutcliffe said. "It's about these seniors that we love so much leaving our program. I'm not going to regret losing bowl games—I would regret not being in them."
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