Duke had always known that it would be playing the Hurricanes to end the regular season. It just happened to turn out that it practically played in one, too.
In a rainy, offensive struggle for both teams mirroring last year's contest, the Blue Devils ultimately prevailed on Senior Day 27-17 against Miami Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium. Defensive end Chris Rumph II wreaked havoc on the Hurricane offense, recording 3.5 sacks, the second-most all-time in a game at Duke.
"The [defensive] tackles got pressure and the ends got up the field," Rumph emphasized on the defensive pressure. “We played relentless and with our hair on fire tonight, and that's where the end result came from."
Despite the win, the Blue Devils' season is over with the team missing a bowl game for the first time since 2016 and for just the second time in eight years. There was a chance coming into the game that Duke could sneak into a bowl game with five wins, but enough teams ended the day with six wins and the season is now officially over.
"Everybody has a team that when things go bad, let it get worse and check out," Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. "With really no opportunity to play in a bowl game and all of those things, it didn't matter. That's not what that effort is about. That effort was about pride, about the program. We talked about it all week long."
After a timely stop early in the fourth quarter, the Blue Devils would get a much needed break. Taking over from the Hurricanes' 40 yard line, they used an 18-yard reception from freshman Jalon Calhoun to set up a two-yard touchdown from Deon Jackson. The score gave Duke a 20-17 lead, one it would not relinquish.
The Blue Devils stopped Miami yet again moments later, and quarterback Quentin Harris would ice the game with a 49-yard touchdown pass to Calhoun.
"I made [the staff] look at a reel of every explosive Miami has given up this season, run or pass," Cutcliffe said. "We sat there and we watched it, and in reality, there was nothing necessarily perfectly executed. It was the attempt itself, allowing playmakers to make plays. So I think the point was taken."
In the final game of his career, Harris completed just 10-of-24 passes for 156 yards. However, the redshirt senior stepped up big late, totaling two of the Blue Devils' three touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, Hurricanes' signal caller Jarren Williams played a similar game, completing just 42.3 percent of his passes.
"We practiced for it a lot. It's not easy, I would say," Harris said on throwing in the rain. "The biggest thing is just timing because guys are a little bit slower out of their cuts. But it can work both ways as you kind of saw with the pass to Jalon there; the defender lost his footing.... For the most part, I think we did a pretty good with that. I think the ball gets a little heavier sometimes. Sometimes it slips and goes a little bit higher, but for the most part it was pretty normal, I think, handling the ball."
After giving up at least 38 points in each of the last three weeks, a rejuvenated Duke defense was stout to open the game. Miami's first three possessions all ended with three-and-outs with the secondary specifically coming up big with pass breakups. On his Senior Day, safety Dylan Singleton as well as linebacker Shaka Heyward led the defense with 10 tackles apiece.
"These seniors work too hard and they're just leaders. We just wanted to send them out on a high note," Rumph said. "We played hard the whole game, no matter the weather. The coaches gave us a great game plan going into the game, and we just executed."
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Despite the defense coming up big, the Blue Devils (5-7, 3-5 in the ACC) struggled to put the ball in the end zone to start. Throwing a wet ball, Harris couldn't get a great grip on the ball on throws down the field. One of his most accurate throws of the night, however, bounced off the hands of an open Darrell Harding Jr. in the back of the end zone, and A.J. Reed would miss the ensuing 46-yard field goal attempt.
It was only a matter of time before Miami (6-6, 4-4) broke through offensively and it came with the help of some trickery, as punter Lou Hedley took the snap on a fourth-and-1 for 21 yards and new life. The Hurricanes took advantage five plays later with Cam'Ron Harris scoring from eight yards out.
With the passing game faltering, Harris decided to take things into his own hands the following drive with the highlight of the half. The redshirt-senior looked off the defense with a fake to Deon Jackson before breaking through to the secondary, making a man miss and scoring his seventh rushing touchdown of the season. The 24-yard scamper gave Duke a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter.
"I think [Miami] wore a little bit," Cutcliffe said on what clicked for the Blue Devils late offensively. "Our defense helped wear down their defense. Our defense was getting off the field. We weren't just doing nothing offensively. We were going fast every time they came out there. We were making them compete. Finally, when you start running the ball again, they didn't have a really good answer. I think tempo allows you to run the ball better than it does anything else."
The start to the second half was very similar to the first offensively for Duke, however, the defense made sure to keep things close. The defensive line hounded Williams all game and finished with nine sacks. Duke may have beaten Miami, but neither team could beat the rain. The Hurricanes would extend their lead to 17-13 midway through the quarter thanks to a huge punt return from K.J. Osborn to the Duke 14-yard line.
"Couldn't be more proud of the effort that guys put together tonight," Harris emphasized. "We talk about getting fourth quarter victories all the time and we have them posted up in our weight room, just games that we were down in the fourth quarter and found a way to win. But I think that perfectly encapsulates the mindset of Duke football and just playing four quarters, out-willing your opponent."
The 2019 campaign has now come to a close for the Blue Devils, who were on a five-game slide before Saturday. The program now turns its attention to a new era with Harris' time at Duke coming to an end. The Blue Devils will return 16 starters next season as they try to put themselves back in ACC Coastal Division contention for 2020.