What started out as a blowout of Duke ended in Blue Devil heartbreak in a game with endless twists and turns, reminiscent of the corn mazes that are so popular this time of year.
But no turn would spook Duke more than a bizarre sequence in which the referees seemingly tore away two points from the Blue Devils at Wallace Wade Stadium Saturday night.
Only down eight after trailing by 23 just a quarter before, Duke broke through when sixth-year defensive tackle Edgar Carenord’s interception set the Blue Devils up at the Panthers 25 with 13 minutes left in the contest. Seven plays later, Quentin Harris found himself in the end zone, with Duke within two points of tying the game.
Duke head coach David Cutcliffe ordered the two-point conversion attempt, a Harris keeper. The Blue Devil signalcaller wasn’t able to cross the plane on the first effort, but he would not go down, as the pile moved just enough that he was safely in for the tying conversion.
Or so everyone thought.
Duke was all set to kick back off to Pittsburgh, but the referees seemed to be discussing something amongst themselves and weren’t letting play go on. On the successful two-point conversion attempt, the line judge had inadvertently signaled the play dead before it actually was. By rule, this meant the conversion attempt had to be replayed.
So the Blue Devils offense went back on the field, having just finished celebrating the tie game. They dialed up the same play again, but this time the Panthers were ready, stopping Harris well short of the endzone. Instead of 26-26, Pittsburgh was back up 26-24 and seemed to have finally stopped Duke’s momentum.
“It’s unfortunate we had to replay the down,” said Cutcliffe. “But I do think when those things happen, it’s a different game even there than it is two points down. So every call changes, every approach changes. It’s over with now. I guess all you can do is call that unfortunate.”
Though the two-point conversion call was a gut punch for the Blue Devils, Duke still had an opportunity to win the game.
With three minutes left on the clock and the Blue Devils still down two, Harris marched it down the field and completed a 44-yard pass to Deon Jackson for a touchdown and Duke’s first lead of the night. After missing another two-point conversion—this time without any strangeness—Duke was up 30-26 with less than two minutes to go. And after their defense had been looking solid all game, the Blue Devils seemed to have climbed all the way back.
“The first thing I said to them is they showed a bunch of heart,” Cutcliffe said. “You don’t get back in a game like that without a lot of heart.”
But, of course, the weirdness wouldn’t be done there. The Panthers started their own potentially game-winning drive off with a pass interference on Duke and immediately went 15 yards up the field. A series of pass plays later put the Panthers in striking distance. A missed tackle on third-and-4 later and the Panthers were back in the end zone, taking the lead for good 33-30.
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Duke had 38 seconds to try and respond, but the game ended for the Blue Devils much as it began, as Harris lost another fumble, Duke’s sixth turnover of the night.
It was a game characterized by penalties, turnovers and some questionable referee decisions. Had the Blue Devils not been forced to attempt their tying two-point conversion attempt again, they could have kicked the point after on their lead-taking touchdown, which would have put Duke up seven, likely forcing overtime.
But Duke wasn’t the first team to fall on the wrong end of a replayed attempt after a touchdown. In the second quarter, when Pittsburgh scored to go up 19-3, a Duke penalty caused a replay of the point-after and, despite making the extra point the first time, the Panthers missed it this time and the game remained a two-score affair.
Though the Blue Devils lost in devastating fashion, there is still a lot of football to be played, and Duke can not be haunted by the ghosts of referees past this Halloween season.
“You can’t let one defeat turn into two,” said Cutcliffe. “But again, you also can’t walk away from it without learning. If you walk away from it without learning something, you’ve wasted a whole game. We can’t get any of it back but we can try not to make the same mistakes twice, starting with me.”