Miami was whistled for a school-record 23 penalties for 194 yards Saturday night.
But the most important Hurricane penalty was the one that was called, but ended up not being enforced.
A bizarre kickoff return by Miami's Corn Elder handed Duke a gut-wrenching 30-27 loss, providing the third consecutive week involving a special teams miracle across the college football landscape. Trailing 24-12 with just 5:49 remaining, quarterback Thomas Sirk mounted consecutive touchdown drives and squeaked in for a two-point conversion to put the Blue Devils up three, but it was all for naught after a controversial eight-lateral sequence gave the Hurricanes the win.
“I can’t say enough about our team and its ability to come charging back,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “The offense and defense just battled. I had no answers for our guys in the locker room that expelled their gut on the field. Not much I can do.”
As Ross Martin’s squib kick traveled down the field, the Blue Devils set up a wall of defenders hoping to contain the ensuing pitch-and-catch and send Duke on to a battle against North Carolina with both teams unbeaten in ACC play. Instead, Elder took a lateral near the 10-yard line all the way down the left side of the field for the touchdown.
Several Blue Devils dropped to their knees while the Hurricanes stormed the field. A Wallace Wade Stadium that had been jubilant just a moment earlier became a House of Horrors as Miami etched a Halloween nightmare that will linger in the memories of Duke fans for years to come.
But in the moments following the play, the thread that bound everybody in attendance together was a simple one—confusion.
A flag thrown near Duke’s 25-yard line lay waiting, and just moments later Wallace Wade was in pandemonium. The officials whistled a Miami player for a block in the back, appearing to keep the Blue Devils alive for one more play. On a night when Duke scored only once on its three red-zone possessions, one more shot at surviving was all Duke could have hoped for.
But after a replay review that spanned nearly eight minutes, head official Jerry Magallanes announced to the stadium at large that no Miami player was ever down and that the block in question was legal. Although replays showed that the block in question was in fact legal, further reviews shed light on other controversial aspects that ACC officials will have to address in coming days.
The Blue Devils were left with not only heartbreak, but questions about the perceived injustice that occurred right before their very eyes.
“I wish I could shed more light on what happened, but no one explained to me what happened,” Cutcliffe said. “There were issues in that game. There were holes, all kinds of issues in that game that need to be addressed by the conference. Not my job.”
Prior to tossing the ball back to a teammate earlier in the play, Walton’s knee appeared down at the Miami 26-yard line, which would have effectively ended the game. As the play progressed, a Hurricane blocker also appeared to deliver a shove in the back of Duke redshirt sophomore Philip Carter at the Miami 15-yard line.
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When the Blue Devils look back at Saturday’s ending, they will realize chances were there to take the victory. Duke came away empty-handed after recovering a fumble on the game’s opening kickoff, and the Hurricanes were sloppy all evening, committing offsides and pass interference penalties to help Duke move downfield. Outside of the final play, the Blue Devil special teams were a sore spot all night as Martin missed a 38-yard field goal and Will Monday shanked an 11-yard punt that gave Miami prime field position and later was stuffed on a fake punt attempt in the third quarter.
“It’s something good to go through,” redshirt junior safety DeVon Edwards said. “It happens and it makes you a better player. It makes you want to look at things early in the game that you did wrong that could’ve helped decide it.”
As Cutcliffe continues to process the ending, the Blue Devils must realize that a matchup against the Tar Heels next weekend holds much more gravity than Saturday’s loss. Duke still controls its destiny in a crowded ACC Coastal Division race and its Tobacco Road rivalry rematch carries just as much importance for the Blue Devils, who were embarrassed 45-20 a year ago in Durham.
“Disappointed is not even close to a good enough word to describe this moment,” Cutcliffe said. “But this moment will pass and we’ll transform ourselves forward.”
But four of Magallanes’ words will continue to spook the Blue Devils as they prepare for the road ahead.
“The game is over.”