WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—Standing in the northwest corner of BB&T Field postgame, you could feel the energy.
No words were needed to express the joy this Duke team was experiencing—you could see it in their smiles, dances and hugs.
It was a far cry from a season ago, when the Blue Devils finished 2016 with a pair of listless blowout defeats. Just as it played a week ago in Durham, Duke was relentless in its regular-season finale Saturday afternoon at Wake Forest, riding a dominant second-half offensive performance to victory.
Now, the Blue Devils' senior class will have one more opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the program as they go bowling for a final time.
"I’ve always wanted to play and start in a bowl game," senior captain Austin Davis said. "I’ve started two years, and last year didn’t go the way we wanted. This year was starting to turn bad, but we’ve overcome the adversity and it’s just an emotional, emotional victory. I love these guys, I’m thankful that I don’t have to say bye to them yet and we’ve got one more game to win in my college career—it’s a heck of a feeling."
Of the 31 points Duke scored, not a single one came from a player who had ever touched the field in a bowl game.
Tight end Daniel Helm, quarterback Daniel Jones and kicker Austin Parker all redshirted the 2015 season, one as a transfer and the other two as freshmen. As for Noah Gray and Brittain Brown? They were still in high school.
But you don't have to look far to see the importance of seniors among this group of Blue Devils.
Three of Duke's four captains—Jones being the lone exception—are in their final year of eligibility. Running back Shaun Wilson finished with nearly twice as many all-purpose yards per game as any other player on the roster. And Bryon Fields Jr.'s game-sealing pick-six at North Carolina will go down as this season's signature play.
Just don't tell that to David Cutcliffe. For the Blue Devils' head coach, this season is far from over.
"We thanked all of the seniors in the locker room for extending the opportunity to just be with them," Cutcliffe said. "Forget just playing football—I told a professor not too long ago that those guys are in our classes every day for five years. We go into their homes. There’s more than what you would call an attachment.
"I’ve told all the parents I’ve seen this week that I couldn’t say goodbye in Winston-Salem. We’ve got to say goodbye at some destination."
A month from now, Duke will likely be in Detroit or Shreveport, La.—not exactly the places that most think of for the prototypical winter getaway. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Life is a journey, not a destination."
When Cutcliffe emerged from the locker room before the start of the third quarter, he bluntly told Fox Sports South sideline analyst Rebecca Kaple, "We're getting ready to go have some fun. We're getting ready to be a different football team. You're going to see a celebration at the end of this thing."
The 2017 Blue Devils' journey was more than just two straight weeks of second-half turnarounds to earn a bowl bid, though. It was a 4-0 response to a 4-8 2016 season, winning as many games as they did all of last year in the span of a month, only to be followed up by one of the worst stretches in the entire Cutcliffe era.
For Davis, Wilson, Fields, Mike Ramsay, Alonzo Saxton, Gabe Brandner and the rest of Duke's senior class, each of their personal journeys in Durham—a roller-coaster ride with the highs of a Pinstripe Bowl win in 2015 and the lows of last season—will soon come to an end.
So after making sure that their collegiate careers did not end on a sour note Saturday, this group of Blue Devils has one more month to write the final chapter.
"We knew what we were capable of, and at Duke, we pride ourselves on hard work," Davis said. "If things aren’t going our way, we’re going to go back to work, so even Sundays after a hard, devastating loss, we came in, lifted weights, watched film, practiced and learned from it. And we got better and better each week, even though we were losing.... Now, we’ve kind of come full circle."
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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."