NEW YORK—Yankee Stadium was destined for one more walk-off in 2015.
Duke outlasted Indiana 44-41 in a overtime thriller in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl after Hoosier kicker Griffin Oakes’ 37-yard field goal sailed above the upright. The kick was ruled no good, sending the Blue Devils streaming onto the field in celebration of the program’s first bowl victory since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
After the game was left tied at 41 in regulation, Ross Martin booted a 36-yard field goal that gave Duke a three-point edge. The Blue Devil defense struggled to contain Indiana’s high-scoring offense for much of the afternoon, but made the necessary stop on third down to force Oakes’ field-goal try.
Duke’s senior class is now tied for the winningest group of Blue Devils in program history.
“We had lost in the fourth quarter three years in a row [in bowl games]. Overtime is a whole new level,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We had 23 seniors that were very committed to this process. It wasn’t all perfect tonight, but there was a will—a strong will to prepare, a strong will to continue competing even when we fell behind in the fourth quarter. I think it was critical that we believed we could come out and pull this game out.”
After Duke (8-5) failed to convert on a fourth down at the Hoosier 18-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Indiana took the ball down the field—sparked by a 50-yard pass from quarterback Nate Sudfeld to wide receiver Ricky Jones—that resulted in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Sudfeld to wide receiver Mitchell Paige. The score put the Blue Devils on the ropes, trailing 41-34.
On the following drive, quarterback Thomas Sirk took the Blue Devil offense down the field and punched in the tying score with less than a minute remaining in regulation on a delayed, five-yard run up the gut. The Hoosiers had a final chance with a 56-yard field goal attempt as time expired, but Oakes’ kick sailed wide right, setting up overtime.
It was not the prettiest of games for Sirk—the redshirt junior finished 17-of-37 for 163 yards, threw two interceptions and suffered a knee injury on Duke’s overtime possession—but he delivered with his legs when his team needed a score.
“I was trying to remain positive and that’s just the way football is,” Sirk said. “And to finish with that drive, that’s what it’s about—finishing the game. I’m just so proud we could finish…. Everyone was confident [that we were going to score] and we knew what we had to accomplish and that was the one thing on our mind.”
After Duke held the Hoosiers to punts, interceptions or turnovers on down on their first five possessions, the game began to look a lot like the last three Duke bowl games—a shootout. A Paige fumble on a Will Monday punt gave Duke momentum midway through the third quarter, but the game continued to go back and forth.
After Blue Devil tight end David Reeves recovered the loose ball at the 19-yard line, tight end Braxton Deaver reached paydirt just three plays later on a 10-yard jump pass from Sirk, giving Duke a 27-24 lead. But the Blue Devil momentum did not last after a stalled drive and punt led to a six play, 65-yard Hoosier drive that ended in a 10-yard rushing touchdown for Alex Rodriguez—an appropriate Hoosier hero in Yankee Stadium—to give Indiana (6-7) the lead, 31-27.
Sirk’s second interception of the game—snatched out of the air by defensive tackled Darius Latham at the Indiana 32-yard line—gave the Hoosiers the ball back late in the third quarter, and Indiana took a seven-point lead on a 27-yard field goal by Oakes. But on the ensuing kickoff, running back Shaun Wilson broke off a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, bursting across the goal line like a sprinter and knotting the score at 34.
“When my name was called, I just tried to make a play that I can make to help my team win,” Wilson said. “A touchdown is a touchdown no matter how far it is, I was just glad I was able to get into the end zone because it was a big momentum swing for the team. Everybody believed in me. They told me to put the team up.”
The Blue Devils broke out to an early 10-0 lead after Martin connected on a 52-yard field goal and Wilson broke loose on an 85-yard run for a touchdown—both Pinstripe Bowl records. But the Hoosiers would not be deterred, as two touchdowns in the second half of the second quarter—a Sudfeld pass to wide receiver Luke Timian for 27 yards and a Devine Redding 17-yard run—kept the game close.
Explosive plays and bend-but-don’t-break defense kept Duke within striking distance in the first half. Sirk scampered up the middle for a 73-yard touchdown that made the score 17-14 with only a minute remaining in the half, and two fourth-down stops and two picks of typically mistake-free Sudfeld—one by linebacker Dwayne Norman and one by safety Philip Carter—provided the Blue Devils an early spark.
Duke will lose several key players from this year’s squad—most notably injured safety Jeremy Cash, wide receiver Max McCaffrey, running back Shaquille Powell, center Matt Skura, Martin and Monday—but the groundwork has finally been laid for Blue Devil postseason success.
“There have been long, terrible streaks that the senior class has broken, but [the 54-year bowl drought coming to an end is] just one more to chalk up and it’s an incredible one to end on,” Martin said. “Now they’ll talk about the 2015 team breaking that streak and now moving forward, I can’t wait to see what this team does next year, too.”