A magical night in Durham
Posted October 21, 2012
"Jamison Crowder 5-yard pass from Sean Renfree (Ross Martin kick), Duke 33-30, 0:13 left."
Seems so innocent in the box score. Without context, without knowing the history -- the recent history -- of come-from-ahead losses, losing streaks, blown opportunities and weird circumstances, it can appear to be just another upset in a conference where they happen on a weekly basis. But this was no ordinary upset.
It's simply the best story in the ACC this year.
Duke, without a bowl appearance since Bill Clinton's first term, stormed 87 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown to reclaim a lead they'd held almost all night and avoid a crushing loss to arch-rival North Carolina. When Renfree found Crowder in the middle of the end zone, Wallace Wade Stadium erupted -- yes, it IS possible to have a great environment for football at Duke -- and the Blue Devils became bowl-eligible for the first time in 18 seasons. But this isn't about erasing nearly two full decades of futility. These players weren't part of the series of winless Blue Devils teams that toiled under Carl Franks and then Ted Roof, both quality men and good coaches, though not at the level necessary to bring Duke football out of it's dormant state. This was about the here and now, the transformation of a program that "had gotten out of the football business", according to the current head coach.
David Cutcliffe is special. It's easy to dismiss the fact that Duke is headed to a bowl game because -- honestly -- it's not that hard to qualify for a bowl these days. If you can squeak out 6 wins chances are there's a C-level city that needs a football team on one side of the field. But, just because Stanford is good, or Northwestern has been to a Rose Bowl and is competitive in the (whichever pretentious division name they player under) Big Ten doesn't mean that it should be the same way at Duke University.
With the obvious academic obstacles, the lack of any recent competitive history and the fact that the Blue Devils haven't had anything resembling a home field advantage since I had hair, it's borderline miraculous that Cutcliffe has quietly built a legitimately competitive football team. I've been saying it since the beginning of the season, this is a good team -- not just a good team for Duke. They're not blessed with incredible talent on either side of the ball, but they've got a lot of solid football players who are getting better each and every week.
And, they've got Coach Cut. An Alabama guy, who got his start as a student assistant coach on the staff of the legendary Bear Bryant. All coaches have to sell something, but for the better part of the first five years Cutcliffe was selling dreams and dreams don't get you good enough players to beat teams in major college football. Dreams get you beat. Sometimes dreams get you embarrassed. But Cutcliffe kept selling and the players kept buying in, and what we see now are players good enough to compete in the ACC.
Apparently, that's all that David Cutcliffe needed to break through. Look at the Blue Devils' roster. There are a lot of players making an impact this year that will be back next season -- and even the one after that. Jamison Crowder, for instance. The player who caught the most significant pass in the last two decades of Duke football is just a sophomore. Before you think I'm overselling the program, rest assured that I don't think the Devils are headed towards BCS contention. But, they're starting to establish enough of a culture -- like Vanderbilt has -- that I think they can be competitive on a year-in year-out basis.
Today though, it's time to start making travel plans. Because for the first time in 18 years, Duke football will not be home for the holidays.
There were other winners, but none to the level of the Blue Devils…
Team of the Week
We should have known that the second half was going to be an adventure. Duke had 20 points on the scoreboard. Last week, at Virginia Tech, it was the same scenario and they melted down and never recovered. This week, Duke looked a lot more confident and comfortable and even though they coughed up all of a 2-touchdown lead entering the 4th quarter, they were able to put together one of the great drives in the program's history to beat North Carolina, 33-30.
Player of the Week
Jamison Crowder didn't have the best stat line among ACC players this week. He caught only five passes for a mere 41 yards in Duke's 33-30 win over North Carolina. But, when you consider that it was Jamison who was riding the other jet-ski in the July 4th accident that severely injured his teammate, Blair Holliday, it just adds another layer of emotion and magic to the story Duke's been writing this year. Holliday nearly died and initially it was thought that he'd never walk again. But, the human body is a wondrous thing, and while there's a long way to go, Holliday was on the sidelines last night when Crowder hauled in the game-winning touchdown pass from Sean Renfree. Holliday even rang the Victory Bell (painted Duke blue immediately after the game) in the Blue Devils locker room.
(Curious) Decision of the Week
David Cutcliffe knew it was a mistake, probably from the moment it failed. With a 14-point lead and just a quarter of football to be played, why on earth would Duke even consider a fake punt -- especially since Will Monday, Duke's freshman punter, is the best in the league!?! The error in judgment gave North Carolina momentum, a short field and began the comeback that allowed the Tar Heels to take the lead with 3:12 to play. Of course, Cutcliffe was crazy like a fox, because he told his team on the sidelines that Carolina screwed up by leaving Duke too much time on the clock. So, maybe he knew what he was doing all along.
Game of the Week
Please! From the atmosphere in Wallace Wade to the performances by UNC star Giovani Bernard (209 yards from scrimmage and 2 TDs), Duke's suddenly explosive rushing attack (234 combined yards) and the heart-pounding game-winning drive, Saturday night in Durham was electric.
Play of the Week
As Carolina was driving for what they hoped would be the go-ahead score late in the 4th quarter, Bryn Renner found WR Erik Highsmith alone behind Duke's secondary for a big gain. However, Duke's Jordan Byas ran Highsmith down from behind, stripped the ball loose and it appeared that teammate Ross Cockrell was about to recover the fumble and preserve the lead. But, the ball squirted free and Gio Bernard scooped it and scored. Wild.
Escape of the Week
Haven't mentioned this yet, but North Carolina State was pretty darned lucky to leave Prince George's County with a win over Maryland. After the Wolfpack gained a 20-18 lead on a Niklas Sade 43-yard field goal with :32 left in the 4th quarter, State allowed Maryland to gain 61 yards in just three plays, all under the direction of Caleb Rowe, a true freshman QB who until those snaps was headed for a redshirt season! Two plays later, Brad Craddock came on to attempt a 33-yard field goal to extend Tom O'Brien's Atlantic Division road losing woes to 0 for 14. Doink! And, the miss allows State to continue the illusion of division contention for another week.
Top to Bottom of the Week
1-Florida State (7-1)…Maintains the top spot in spite of a less-than-impressive looking win at Miami.
2-Clemson (6-1)…Got out gained by over 100 yards in the win over Virginia Tech.
3-Duke (6-2)…This is no longer a ranking in jest. 87 yards in 14 plays to win and take lead in Coastal.
4-NC State (5-2)…A doink away from dropping to 8th.
5-Maryland (4-3)…Never thought Duke AND Maryland would be bowl-eligible this year, but Terps still alive.
6-North Carolina (5-3)…4-game winning streak comes to an end amid poor tackling and red zone offensive failures.
7-Virginia Tech (4-4)…Another loss, but at least their defense played reasonably well -- for them, anyway.
8-Miami (4-4)…Battled the Seminoles for three quarters before caving in. Still in the Coastal division hunt.
9-Georgia Tech (3-4)…Hard to get too excited by a win over Division 2 Boston College, but it's a start.
10-Wake Forest (4-3)…Wait, the Deacons might go bowling, too! John Swofford just bought stock in Pepto Bismol.
11-Virginia (2-6)…They're still not Boston College.
12-Boston College (1-6)…When does basketball season start?
Three to look for...of the Week
3-Clemson at Wake Forest (Thursday, 7:30/ESPN)…First of four straight ACC Thursday nighters.
2-Duke at Florida State (3:30/ESPNU)…Devils likely looking past Seminoles to season-ending stretch for Coastal title.
1-NC State at North Carolina (12:30/WRAL)…Wolfpack looking for their longest winning streak in series history.