WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—For nearly two months, things in Durham were spiraling.
During the course of six consecutive defeats, Duke failed to even score a touchdown twice. After beginning the year a perfect 4-0, the Blue Devil offense was scuffling, and Saturday at Wake Forest—even after snapping its losing skid last weekend—it looked for nearly a half-hour as if Duke would revert to its old form.
But Daniel Jones and the Blue Devils would not go quietly on the regular season's final afternoon.
With its 2017 campaign on the line, Duke emerged victorious at BB&T Field, knocking off the Demon Deacons 31-23 to earn the Blue Devils' sixth win of the year and become bowl eligible for the fifth time in the last six seasons. After trailing by a touchdown at halftime, Duke came out firing after the break, racking up 230 yards and 21 points to pull away from Wake Forest.
"We all looked in the mirror and we took account of where we were,” Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. “We use the phrase around here, ‘You can either run to it or you can run from it.’ What that means specifically is take ownership, and we didn’t run from anything. We ran right to it.”
For Duke, the turnaround all began under center. Jones finished the afternoon with 346 yards on 25-of-44 passing, tallying two touchdowns through the air and another on the ground to lead the Blue Devil offense to a second consecutive win.
“When you go through a six-game skid, you learn how to overcome adversity, you learn how to become tough and become a gritty team,” senior captain and center Austin Davis said. “That’s one thing Coach Cut always teaches us. You’ve got to overcome the pressure and any mistakes that come your way and go forward.
“We made mistakes in the first half, but we knew that the second half was going to be ours and we had to know that we were going to come back and get the win.”
With Duke trailing 17-10 at the break, the teams traded empty possessions to open the third quarter. The Demon Deacons then marched into Blue Devil territory—only to be held to a field goal that kept the visitors within striking distance, down just 10.
From there, Jones went to work.
Duke (6-6, 3-5 in the ACC) scored touchdowns on three straight series, going at least 74 yards on each possession to stake the visitors to a 31-23 lead midway through the fourth quarter. First, a six-yard pass to freshman Noah Gray—just the second touchdown reception of his young career—made the score 20-17 in favor of the hosts.
Then, just when it seemed like Wake Forest (7-5, 4-4) might get a crucial stop, Jones completed a clutch 36-yard pass to Chris Taylor on fourth down, putting the Blue Devils inside the Demon Deacon one-yard line and setting up an easy quarterback sneak score for Jones.
And if that wasn't enough for the Duke offense, the Blue Devils came back for more, using 12 plays and nearly four minutes to march down the field, capping the series with a four-yard rushing touchdown by redshirt freshman Brittain Brown.
"Everyone understood the opportunity that we had, and at times in the first half, we were able to move the ball and do what we wanted to do,” Jones said. “A few missed opportunities held us up, so we knew that if we could get some of those things right, we had a good opportunity to come out on top.”
Down by eight with a little more than eight minutes to go, Wake Forest made a quarterback change, bringing Kendall Hinton in for John Wolford—who posted one of his weaker showings of the season, finishing with 191 yards and just 16 completions on 33 attempts.
But the Duke defense did not relent and forced the Demon Deacons to go back to Wolford late in the game for a potential game-tying drive. With a little more than two minutes remaining in the game, the Blue Devils sealed the win when sophomore Koby Quansah brought big-time pressure on fourth-and-3 and cornerback Mark Gilbert intercepted Wolford for the second time of the afternoon.
“We felt like we had their number early, but we just had to get adjusted to their offense,” senior safety Alonzo Saxton II said. “When Daniel is clicking, we have to step up our game because we don’t want to disappoint the offense, just like the offense doesn’t want to disappoint us. It’s a hand-in-hand thing, and we’ve got to hold up our end of the deal.”
Even with some early and late first-half fireworks, neither side could gain a significant advantage in the opening 30 minutes.
After a Jones interception on the Blue Devils' first series set up a Demon Deacon touchdown and Wake Forest extended its lead to 10-0 with a field goal in the first few minutes of the game, Duke responded with a 10-play drive that resulted in an Austin Parker field goal to pull the Blue Devils within seven.
Although the teams then went scoreless for more than nine minutes, a pair of quick-strike touchdowns before halftime brought the score to 17-10 at intermission.
But for a second straight week, the Blue Devils were able flip the script in the latter stage of a game. Duke will now await Selection Sunday next weekend to find out where it will be headed for a bowl game.
“We just stuck to the plan, we trusted our coaches and trusted our game and how good we were each and every day,” Davis said. “We showed that Duke football can bounce back from adversity, and we did it as a team.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."