Duke's blowout loss against Virginia wasn't pretty but explainable—it came on the road against a solid Cavalier squad. The Blue Devils fought to the bitter end against rival North Carolina and fell in heartbreaking fashion, certainly an emotional loss but not unexpected. A third straight loss to then-No. 15 Notre Dame was largely expected, as the Fighting Irish were unquestionably the more talented and athletic team.
However, Saturday night's 49-6 loss to Syracuse at home is a new low for the Blue Devils this season. The Orange entered the contest without a single conference win, never had a two-score lead against a Power Five foe and had zero defensive touchdowns. All three stats are true no longer, as Syracuse stunned a Duke team that struggled —at some times looking inept—on both sides of the ball, lacked energy and were demoralized.
"There’s frustration. Those are four games in a row so obviously after like a blowout two in a row at home," said Blue Devil safety Dylan Singleton. "This is definitely the most stunning result of the year. We felt like we were a better team than Syracuse. We definitely felt like we could beat them at home but that didn’t happen tonight."
The energy level at Wallace Wade was tempered to start the game, with a (generous) stated attendance of 16,286 in a stadium that can hold over 40,000 spectators. Although the offense started the game moving the ball well, a confusing third-and-15 run call left A.J. Reed attempting a 44-yard field goal as the powerful crosswinds ripped through Brooks Field. After the attempt missed wide left, Syracuse marched down the field and took a lead they would never cede.
"I think we were definitely moving the ball well offensively. You know one penalty here, a mis-yardage play here, a loss yardage play there," Blue Devil quarterback Quentin Harris said. "We just have to do a better job finishing drives."
Syracuse tacked on another touchdown by gashing the Duke rushing defense, but the Blue Devils held the Orange scoreless in the second quarter and Reed connected on a 51-yard kick before the break to give Duke a hint of momentum heading to the locker room.
However, the start of the third quarter was disastrous and any life the Blue Devils had was drained out of the stadium. Three straight drives led to three straight turnovers, which led to three straight touchdowns—including a pick-six—for Syracuse. The Duke offense looked disjointed and sloppy, while the defense could do nothing to stop the Orange on the short field.
"I think breaks were not really going our way. Had a couple of contested plays that ended up in turnovers that are unfortunate," Harris said. "I think that, coupled with not finishing drives offensively, was what ruined our momentum there in the third quarter."
Duke was run out of its own stadium figuratively with more than quarter left to play, while the fans ran out of Wallace Wade literally. With the scoreboard reading 35-6 and the sunset bringing on the chilly night over an empty stadium, the Blue Devil sideline was frozen over: silent and void of any life or energy. It's hard to blame anyone when the frigid combination of tough breaks, scary injuries and a losing streak set into the hearts of players.
"You can’t really control anything but our effort and how we are playing. You just try to go around and keep everyone excited, keep everyone up," Harris said. "Obviously it sucks when things aren’t going your way but you have to try to stay upbeat and make sure everything else recognizes that even if the score isn't the way we want it to be, we can finish this thing strong."
Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, finishing strong was not in their destiny. Syracuse tacked on another pair of touchdowns in the final period while Chris Katrenick took over under center and could do no better. With two games left in the season—and Duke needing at least one and likely two wins to secure bowl eligibility—the Blue Devils are holding their heads high and finding comfort and confidence in each other.
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"I’m sure the guys are excited to get back to practice this week and put together a good effort and hopefully get the win next Saturday," Harris said. "Everyone is still sticking together. That’s one thing you love about this group, everybody is really resilient and stick together in unity. We are going to look to get things corrected and find our stride again because we know what we are capable of when we are playing well."
These words will need to translate to performance. After the North Carolina loss and through the bye week, players and coaches alike spoke about 'November football' and playing their best through the final four games. Halfway through the month, Duke has little, if nothing to show for it. The Blue Devil coaches and players will have to do some important soul-searching if they want to pull a complete 180 and salvage the season from this low point. 'Good' practices will no longer cut it, the next two weeks are do-or-die for Duke.
"We are not going to let this define us and we are not going to let this defeat us. Anybody that thinks so does not have to be around here," Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe said. "We are all crushed but what I told them was exactly this, 'It's not about any individual. Do not start worrying about yourself and how you feel. You can't say you are a team and say you are not worried about your teammates.'"