Three years ago, a Halloween nightmare snapped Duke football out of a two-and-a-half-year dream, and the Blue Devils haven’t fully recovered.
From the start of the 2013 season until the moment Ross Martin sent a squib kick bouncing down the field with six seconds left against Miami on that crisp, clear night at Wallace Wade Stadium, Duke’s record was 25-9. Since then, the Blue Devils are 18-21. With Duke getting ready to face the Hurricanes close to Halloween again, it’s a good time to reflect on the unmistakable dividing line between real relevance and middling mediocrity in the program’s recent history.
Beginning with the Blue Devils’ record-setting 10-win season in 2013 that featured an eight-game winning streak and an ACC Coastal Division title, it seemed like every close game went the Blue Devils’ way. Duke wasn’t as talented as many of its opponents, but it won by being smart and disciplined, and it never beat itself.
The 2014 season would have featured a second straight Coastal Division crown if not for two missed field goals at home against Virginia Tech, one of the few tight games during that stretch that went the other way. But the Blue Devils got their revenge on the Hokies the next year with a thrilling 45-43 four-overtime victory on the road on Oct. 24, 2015.
The win pushed Duke to 6-1 and put the Blue Devils in a good position to win the Coastal once again. A struggling Miami team that had just lost 58-0 to Clemson at home and fired head coach Al Golden was coming to town next. Duke was a 10-point favorite.
Most of the game did not go according to plan, as Miami’s defense stifled the Blue Devils and the Hurricanes led 24-12 in the closing minutes. But Duke scored to trim the deficit to five with 2:40 remaining, got a quick stop and marched down the field again for a dramatic comeback.
Quarterback Thomas Sirk was met at the goal line on a one-yard run with six seconds left and no timeouts left for the Blue Devils, and the referee signaled touchdown. We’ll never know whether the ball crossed the plane of the end zone on that play, but there wasn’t conclusive evidence during the ensuing review to reverse the call. It wasn’t an egregious miscarriage of justice like what came next.
You know what came next, right? I’ll give you a summary if you’re new here.
Martin squibbed a kick to Miami’s 25-yard line. The Hurricanes lateraled a bunch of times. On the fourth lateral, Mark Walton’s knee hit the ground before he released the ball, which should have ended the game. Miami got away with multiple blocks in the back before it was finally flagged for a questionable block as Corn Elder finished sprinting down the left sideline into the end zone. At least there was a flag. Justice would be served.
Except it wasn’t. At some point during the officials’ interminable huddle after the play, they decided to pick up the flag without communicating that to the crowd. And, of course, the replay official inexplicably missed the fact that THE KNEE WAS DOWN. After more than nine minutes of uncertainty, referee Jerry Magallanes raised his arms to give Miami a touchdown and proclaimed, “The game is over,” cementing the biggest college football officiating snafu of this century.
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Magallanes and his crew were suspended two weeks for their collective incompetence on the play, but the uproar couldn’t change the outcome. Miami won, 30-27. It was the first defeat of a disastrous four-game losing streak for Duke, and the Blue Devils haven’t seriously contended in the Coastal Division ever since.
Sure, there have been a couple of encouraging moments amid all the disappointment of the last three years, including Duke’s first two bowl wins of the last half-century. But it was far more glamorous to go toe-to-toe with Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel in the 2013 Chick-fil-A Bowl in a 52-48 loss than it was to beat Northern Illinois in an empty stadium in the lowly Quick Lane Bowl last year.
Since the 2015 Miami game, the Blue Devils’ seniors are 0-4 against Pittsburgh. They’re 0-4 against Virginia and 0-3 against Virginia Tech. And they haven’t come close to beating the Hurricanes.
A win this weekend in their fourth and final chance probably wouldn’t be enough to help Duke threaten for the top spot in the Coastal—that ship has already sailed with three losses in the last month. But it could be just what the Blue Devils need to reverse the curse and finally start to escape the bitter shadow of what happened three years ago.