NEW YORK—After three consecutive nail-biter bowl games in which Duke did not come out on top, it looked like the Blue Devils would have to wait yet another season to get that elusive bowl victory.
This time, it was different, and Duke was able to grind out its first bowl win in 54 years.
Trailing Indiana by a touchdown with less than a minute left in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl, quarterback Thomas Sirk tied the game at 41 with a five-yard touchdown run. Then senior Ross Martin nailed a 36-yard field goal in overtime that—after Hoosier kicker Griffin Oakes’ game-tying field goal attempt missed from 38 yards out—proved to be the game-winner.
The Blue Devils’ first postseason win since the 1961 Cotton Bowl was not always pretty, but the victory was yet another accomplishment for the players and coaches whose on-field play has changed the culture and reputation of Duke football.
“There’s tears,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “There were tears on the field. We just about broke the platform down.... Just so many players wanting to be up around there. It’s just emotional.”
The Blue Devils had been close in their three previous trips to bowl games, but could never close out a victory. In the 2012 Belk Bowl, Duke was driving with the game tied at 34 with less than two minutes left before a Josh Snead fumble was recovered by Cincinnati. The Bearcats then scored an 83-yard touchdown and added a pick-six in the final 1:10 to win 48-34.
In the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl, the Blue Devils saw a 41-31 fourth-quarter lead evaporate against the wizardry of Johnny Manziel as Texas A&M completed a comeback to win, 52-48.
A season ago, it looked as though Duke would finally end its bowl skid, taking a 31-30 lead against No. 15 Arizona State with five minutes left thanks to some trick-play wizardry of their own. But on the ensuing kickoff, Kalen Ballage rumbled 96 yards to set up a Sun Devil touchdown, and Duke’s desperation drive ended in an interception—and another loss.
“I’ve been on the team for three bowl games with the senior classes that didn’t win,” Duke senior running back Shaquille Powell said. “I see how it is after that. It sucks to have that feeling of defeat….No one wants to feel that pain again.”
Powell’s class will not.
When Indiana took a seven-point lead with 4:03 left in the game, it looked like Duke was headed for another heartbreak. But the prior bowl experiences came in handy, helping the Blue Devils stay focused and calm as the clock ticked down.
“We didn’t lose faith in ourselves that game,” Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk said. “We were resilient and we kept fighting. We knew that anything can happen in those situations and we never stopped believing.”
The bowl win—as dramatic a victory as each of the three previous postseason losses—is the cherry on top of what has been a remarkable turnaround for Duke program under Cutcliffe. From making its first bowl game in 2012 since the 1994 season to breaking into the AP top 25 in each of the last three seasons and making its way to the ACC Championship in 2013, this Blue Devil squad has accomplished a lot in the past four seasons.
But there was still unfinished business to attend to. Duke’s senior class had already achieved plenty, but their teammates wanted to make sure they left Durham with a bowl win.
“People just wanted to win for the seniors,” said Duke linebacker Ben Humphreys, who wore injured redshirt senior linebacker’s Kelby Brown’s No. 59 jersey for Saturday’s game. “For the four-year, the five-year, the six-year seniors that have put in countless hours of work, now they finally get to go out on top.”
Cutcliffe inherited a perennial ACC bottom-dweller in 2008 and changed the culture of the program. Even though his early years in charge were not successful from a win-loss perspective, the program stayed patient, and has reaped the rewards ever since.
“It just comes down to the way I feel about Coach [Cutcliffe],” said Duke offensive coordinator Scottie Montgomery, who now departs Durham to take over the head coaching position at East Carolina. “Probably the highest I’ve felt in football, from a football standpoint, is seeing him raise that trophy tonight.... These guys give everything they have, but you need a leader at the end of the day to make sure that you push up to their limit and take care of them at their limit. That’s what he was able to do with this program.”
Saturday’s win was important for moving past the frustrations of the last three years. It was important for snapping the 54-year streak of empty postseasons.
But it was also important for the program’s continued growth.
Winning a game on national television against a Big Ten team that hung in with some of the best teams in the nation will give Duke a springboard—into spring ball, into the 2016 season and on the recruiting trail.
“It’s great for our program,” Sirk said. “You go into the offseason, the last game before, knowing it was a win. That means everything for the program and going into spring ball that’s definitely a confidence builder for our team.”