NEW YORK—In a game that featured All-Americans, program record-holders and a plethora of veteran leaders, it was Duke’s backup running back who had the biggest impact on Saturday's game.
Sophomore Shaun Wilson stole the show for the Blue Devils in their 44-41 overtime victory against Indiana in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The versatile Charlotte, N.C., native amassed 282 all-purpose yards, most of them on two huge explosive plays to help Duke win its first bowl game since the 1961 Cotton Bowl.
“When my name was called, I just tried to make a play that I can make to help my team win,” Wilson said.
Wilson was key in helping the Blue Devils get out to an early first quarter lead. After a Dwayne Norman interception disrupted an Indiana red zone drive, Duke got the ball on its own 15. On the very next play, Wilson burst through the middle and ran untouched on his way to an 85-yard score.
The run—which tied the longest rushing touchdown in Pinstripe Bowl history and vaulted Wilson into Duke's record books as owner of the longest touchdown scamper in Blue Devil history—gave Duke a 10-0 advantage.
Although Wilson’s early game run got Duke off to a strong start, Indiana quickly responded with 14 straight points. The Hoosier offense finally hit its stride in the third quarter, and Indiana grabbed a 34-27 lead on Griffin Oakes' 27-yard field goal with 11:12 left in the game.
Duke's offense had looked tepid for much of the third quarter. The Blue Devils scored 10 points in the period, but settled for a field goal on their opening drive after missing an opportunity for a touchdown. Braxton Deaver scored on a 10-yard jump pass from Thomas Sirk that was set up by a fumble recovery deep in Hoosier territory, but then the Duke offense gained only 35 yards on the three ensuing drives and was in desperate need of a spark.
By virtue of scoring on Oakes' field goal, the Hoosiers were forced to kick off—to Wilson.
And he delivered that spark.
Wilson returned Oakes' kickoff 98 yards to the house, tying the game at 34 and injecting new confidence and energy into his team.
“A touchdown is a touchdown, no matter how far it is,” Wilson said. “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.”
If someone was to deliver a game-changing play on special teams, Wilson might not have been the first guess. Duke usually sends All-American returner DeVon Edwards back to field kickoffs. The Covington, Ga., native boasted three return touchdowns this season heading into Saturday and had a few chances early, but Wilson went back for most return situations in the second half and put together a much-needed performance in relief.
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In the end, Wilson’s only blunder in the game came when he was under center. In the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils tried to catch Indiana off guard by running the Wildcat with Wilson acting as quarterback, but the sophomore threw an interception right to the Hoosiers' Jonathan Crawford, who came across the field to prevent Wilson's pass from reaching its intended target, T.J. Rahming.
Wilson’s work with his legs more than made up for his gaffe, though. He was one of three Duke players with more than 100 yards rushing in the game—along with Sirk and running back Jela Duncan—and contributed 164 yards in the return game. Wilson's performance was rightly rewarded in the end, as he was named the game’s co-MVP along with Sirk.
Duke head coach Dave Cutcliffe summed up Wilson’s performance best: