ChronSports' Top 10 of 2023 — No. 9: After Duke football's undefeated start, school hosts first-ever appearance from ESPN College GameDay

Duke students hoist hand-crafted signs in front of the College GameDay cameras.
Duke students hoist hand-crafted signs in front of the College GameDay cameras.

As the bow gets tied on 2023, The Chronicle’s sports department is reviewing the biggest storylines in Duke athletics throughout the year. Each day until the calendar flips to January, we will cover two of the most significant moments in Blue Devil sports from 2023.

Coming in at No. 9: After a 4-0 start and a No. 17 ranking in the AP Poll, Duke football was selected to host the program's first-ever appearance from ESPN College GameDay. For the full list, click here.

By the time the sun rose on Sept. 30, Abele Quad had transformed into a television set. Metal scaffolding and lights covered the bus circle, sponsor tents littered the lawn and sign-bearing students waited breathlessly behind metal fences for the show to begin. 

ESPN’s College GameDay had arrived in Durham for the first time in its history – and the Blue Devils spared no energy or enthusiasm in their welcome.

A week earlier, ESPN had announced the show would travel to Durham for Duke’s matchup against Notre Dame. The then-17th-ranked Blue Devils looked stronger than they had in years, having taken down then-No. 9 Clemson in Week 1 and easily triumphed against Lafayette, Northwestern, and UConn. Then-No. 11 Notre Dame was a fierce opponent, but confidence in Duke football had reached an all-time high. The phrase “football school” already echoed around campus; College GameDay’s appearance confirmed that the Blue Devils were a team worth watching out for.

Abele Quad, featuring the chapel as its background, was the natural choice for the show’s location. But prepping the area to be the center of the college football universe required a full week of work. Centennial construction came to a halt as more than 100 crew members labored to construct sets and prepare production equipment. Trucks, cameras and stages slowly encroached the bus circle, forcing students to trudge up Chapel Drive for most of the week.

When Saturday finally arrived, the delays and construction proved well worth it. Students — some of whom had camped out in line since 4 a.m. — waved hand-drawn signs and screamed cheers for the cameras. Blue overalls and hard hats littered the crowd. Music blared over speakers. The entire quad buzzed with the energy of a never-before-seen display of love for Blue Devil football.

Fans in the pit kept the excitement high for the entire three-hour show. Others milled around the various sets — taking pictures at a mock GameDay table, attempting field goals, taking advantage of the promos at sponsor tables.

As the morning drew to an end, guest picker Ken Jeong gave an electric testament to the spirit of the Blue Devil community. He, Desmond Howard and Pat McAfee all picked Duke to win the game, raising hopes for a victory on the field that night. Though Lee Corso chose Notre Dame, it wasn’t enough to quell the excitement.

The set was taken down within a few hours of the show’s conclusion, but energy stayed high. As fans returned to Wallace Wade Stadium only a few hours later, the thrill of prime-time seemed to crackle in the air. Early games (including the season opener against Clemson) had poised the Blue Devils with little to lose. Now, the entire nation was watching them take the field.

It may have been the pressure that caused Duke to struggle in the first half of the game, with missed field goals and failed scoring attempts in two red-zone trips leaving them far behind the Fighting Irish. Halftime came without a single home point on the board. But the Blue Devils found a rhythm in the second half, clawing their way ahead with strong rushing game and chunk yardage. With just a few minutes remaining, they managed to secure a one-point lead. The cheers in a sold-out stadium were deafening. Fans’ hope was stretched paper-thin. The student section even positioned itself to storm the field, pushing closer and closer to the front rows. Victory seemed so close that everyone in the stadium waited anxiously for Duke football to reach out and grab ahold.

The team ran the clock some, then a punt from quarterback Riley Leonard pushed Notre Dame against their goal line. The Fighting Irish needed only a field goal to win.

Notre Dame’s offense, led by quarterback Sam Hartman, drove to the Duke 40-yard line before being bumped back on an offensive pass interference penalty. But first down disappeared, then second. Then third. The air buzzed with anticipation.

It came down to a final effort on fourth-and-16 at the Duke 47-yard line, where Notre Dame running back Audric Estime slipped through the defense and made a mad dash for a 30-yard touchdown run. The Fighting Irish scored. Spirits crashed. With 31 seconds left in the game, Notre Dame had positioned themself above Duke 21-14.

The Blue Devils were unlikely to recover, but still gave their all in the final moments. Leonard fumbled on Duke’s last-chance drive, then had to be helped off the field with an ankle injury. Notre Dame ran out the rest of the clock, and the wave of disappointment that had settled over fans grew heavier. The student section quietly marched back up the way it had come, sobered by defeat. What had started as a day of excitement had turned into a stinging loss for both fans and players. College GameDay was over and had proven itself a testament to both the highs and lows of the sport.

Looking back, it may have been the peace before the storm — a final moment of hope and spirit amidst a season that would eventually be characterized by injuries, brutal losses and coaching turnover. Between the anticipation of the morning, the thrill of the afternoon, the ambition of the second half, and the crushing blow of defeat in the final seconds, each Blue Devil player and fan experienced Duke football in a way they never had before. 

There was still a silver lining. Despite the loss, the show’s appearance in Durham turned the nation’s eyes to a young team full of potential. College GameDay’s first time in Durham was certainly one for the history books – both for the team spirit and potential it shone a new light on.

Read more:

ESPN College GameDay to come to Durham for the first time

'The center of the college football universe for one week': How Duke prepared for College GameDay

Best Week 5 College GameDay signs

An attempt at fame on College GameDay

END OF THE RAINBOW: No. 17 Duke football falls to No. 11 Notre Dame on final-minute touchdown


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