Nobody could have seen such a pathetic performance coming from Duke Saturday afternoon—both because the Blue Devils were a double-digit favorite and haven't lost a football game that badly in 28 years, and because nobody was at Wallace Wade Stadium to see anything coming at all.
Duke was dead on arrival on a gloomy, rainy Senior Day, entering a stadium that was less than 10 percent full at kickoff and never had any energy with students home on a holiday weekend. It was a showing reminiscent of the 2000s, when the Blue Devils regularly went 0-12 or 1-11, and Duke's quality of play sunk past that level in its 59-7 loss that was already 21-0 at the end of the first quarter and kept getting worse.
"I think we get motivated by a big atmosphere. I don’t blame fans as we put out an awful product and it was awful weather out there," redshirt senior center Zach Harmon said. "Guys weren’t juiced up. Guys weren’t ready to play. Wake Forest, they brought their own juice and didn’t need a big crowd or anything to get them pumped up to play football. Today, we were lacking the energy that they brought."
As embarrassing losses go, Saturday's effort certainly takes the cake, but the Blue Devils haven't performed well at home in ACC play all season to build up to such a grand finale. Duke was favored against both Virginia Tech and Virginia before losing by multiple touchdowns, and it barely escaped a North Carolina team that just wrapped up a 2-9 season.
That 1-3 ACC home record is becoming the norm for the Blue Devils for the last three years. They only beat Georgia Tech last season and the Tar Heels the year before, with several disappointing losses to Pittsburgh, Miami, the Cavaliers and the Hokies mixed in.
"I don’t know if there’s an answer to that," said quarterback Daniel Jones, Duke's starter for all three of those seasons. "Wherever we play we’re responsible to bring our own intensity."
Meanwhile, Duke has been a respectable 2-2 on the road in conference play for the last two years, with impressive victories against the Yellow Jackets and Hurricanes this season. That's the same road record as this year's Coastal Division champion, Pittsburgh.
But the Blue Devils haven't been anywhere near the top of the wide-open division this season because home has not been kind to them.
"The bottom line is our 11th year here, you’ve got to be mature enough to play your best football. That’s what good programs do," head coach David Cutcliffe said. "Regardless of circumstance, weather, home or away, the kind of focus it takes to win a Power-5 conference game is very challenging. So we obviously need to mature our team in that regard and address that fact."
Duke has invested in football since Cutcliffe arrived in 2008, and after winning 19 games in 2013 and 2014 with fans starting to show up for success, it ripped up the track around the stadium and built the gleaming Blue Devil Tower to replace the bland sports medicine building that used to loom over the sideline. The goal was to improve the fan experience, getting students closer to the field in the end zone and giving boosters more luxurious and expensive treatment with food and drinks in the club in the tower.
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That type of upgrade may never have paid off at a school where basketball will always reign supreme, but it would certainly help for the Blue Devils to win more games at the new-and-improved stadium.
Duke was practically begging people to show up for Saturday's game, offering free tickets and concessions vouchers to students of all ages to sit in the student section as well as $15 tickets and concessions vouchers for their family and friends. A glance at the student section showed that promotion didn't work, with the Duke marching band playing for nobody.
Perhaps it was good for the program's future that so few fans were around to witness Saturday's loss. They'll show up on opening night next year blissfully ignorant of how bad the Blue Devils can look in person. But any repeat of that performance may scare spectators away for good, and it will be hard for Duke to know where to start regrouping after getting throttled in every facet of the game as it prepares to play a bowl game away from home in a month.
"I don’t need to start trying to search for answers right now," Cutcliffe said in a daze after the game. "My brain is so tired right now I think it’s counterproductive."