Sometimes all you can do is shake your head and laugh.
The Duke Blue Devil football team, playing in its first bowl game in 18 years as a decided underdog, outplayed a more talented Cincinnati team for approximately 58 and three quarter minutes, before giving away assured victory, overtime and the cover in spectacular and heart breaking fashion. This is Duke Football my friends. While we have seen marked improvement this year, not only in wins, but in the quality of the play, especially on the offensive side of the ball, the cursed cloud that has hung over this team for the better part of 50 years was not quite ready to disappear last night.
Duke jumped out to a quick 16-0 lead with the help of inspired play on both sides of the ball and a block punt. The Devils looked poised to break open an early three score lead at 23-3 when true freshman Jela Duncan fumbled the ball just short of the goal line. The Bearcats regained momentum and scored 14 straight points to take the lead, with the last drive a 98-yarder coming in the last 2:30 of the first half, off the heels of the most amazing punts I've ever seen in my life.
That 98-yard drive would be a back-breaker for most Duke teams: the point at which the floodgates might open. But not this year's Blue Devils. Sean Renfree managed to get the Blue Devils in field goal range and Ross Martin nailed a 53 yarder. Unfortunately, the Bearcats cheated and had too many men on the field. That a defensive penalty should ever be a dead ball foul is absolute horsecrap. Why not let the offense play on? Since this is Duke, Martin, missed the 48 yarder, and the Devils went into halftime down one, with the wheels seeming to be coming off a bit.
The Blue Devils and Bearcats traded punches in a tremendously entertaining second half. In fact, Duke looked to be the better team, especially during the first 13 minutes of the fourth quarter. But let's just skip to the heartbreaking ending.
Ladies and gentleman, Duke Football. There may be some lopsided rivalries like Navy vs. Notre Dame for a time, or Clemson at UNC in basketball, where one team continues to get to the precipice of breaking through only to have everything fall apart at the worst possible time, every time. This is different. Duke football has found some of the most heartbreaking ways to lose in the past 18 years, really starting with the back to back daggers against the Heels and Wolfpack in 1994. There have been made field goals, missed field goals, untimely turnovers, everything. But when Duke pulled the win out against UNC after that ridiculous fumble for a touchdown by the 'Heels, forgive us Blue Devil fans for thinking the tide had turned a bit. We were wrong. So horribly, horribly wrong.
With the game tied at 34, Duke was finishing off a masterfully coached drive by David Cutcliffe, taking the ball from its own 43 with over 5 minutes left to first and goal with under 90 seconds left. Seriously, this was clock management and end of game play calling at its finest. Kick the field goal and tie. Or worst case, miss it and go to overtime. On second down, Duke ran with Josh Snead, who managed to fumble at the 5, recovered by Cincinnati. Ugh. OK. 1:32 left. Let's get to overtime. Unfortunately, the Bearcats weren't having it, and in a play that epitomized the struggles of Duke's young, banged up and thin secondary, Brendan Kay hit a wide open Travis Kelce. Duke's over the top help was nowhere to be found (really? with less than a minute left?). Kelce went for 83 yards and the score. A young defense that had hung in for most of the game and did just enough to allow its offense to keep up finally folded at the worst possible time.
Duke still had a shot to tie, and after Carolina, you wouldn't have been foolish to have some hope that Renfree might just be able to do it in his final game as a Blue Devil. Alas, Renfree gets leveled (I think he's still on the turf), Cincy runs it back for a TD, and those Duke fans that were just hoping for at least a cover to pay off their Christmas debthad their hearts broken doubly in less than a minute. 48-34.
I wrote several weeks ago that it was important to not allow this year's bowl run to turn into 1994. Many circumstances provide hope that Duke will avoid this fate. First and foremost, Duke has a head coach that is committed, has the players' confidence, and has skins on the wall. Coach Cutcliffe is building something here, and although it may be two steps forward and one step back on occasion, he is already outpacing anything Fred Goldsmith was able to do on the recruiting trail. Having a couple of Mannings on your resume certainly is helpful, too. The very nature of the bowl system, and the thinning out of the ACC with the additions of Pitt and Syracuse should also help Duke find those 6 wins on the schedule more easily than it has been able to in the past.
Duke fans won't be waiting another 18 years for a bowl, even if we likely may have to wait two. This Duke team is losing a ton of seniors on offense, and will certainly need to find its legs early and quickly next year if it hopes to become bowl eligible again. Duke's defense should improve tremendously next year by adding bodies to the secondary alone. The defensive unit also loses several seniors, but for the first time in many years (with the exception of FSU and Clemson), I didn't feel like Duke's defense was unable to compete with the offenses lined up across the line of scrimmage. There are some real players on this team. I'm excited, despite the predictable disaster of last night. On to 2013.