DURHAM - It was another loss at the end of another losing season for the Duke football program on Saturday, yet the mood after the Blue Devils lost 45-34 to Wake Forest seemed optimistic and upbeat.
Sure, there were expressions of disappointment about not making a bowl game or not finishing the season with a .500 record. No player was happy about finishing 5-7 overall and 3-5 in the ACC, ending the season with four straight losses and failing to create those special moments all of them dreamed about.
A few of the team's nine seniors spoke about the dismaying times they had experienced in search of victories in their college careers, but they countered those hard-luck references with a look toward the future and brighter days at Wallace Wade Stadium. They won one more game than they won last season, and with the help of second-year coach David Cutcliffe, they turned the corner toward a possible winning season.
"For the younger guys, this is something to build off of," said Duke senior quarterback Thaddeus Lewis, who added to his record-breaking career statistics with a 387-yard passing effort in the loss. "This is something that hasn't been done here in a while. They just need to continue to get better as a program."
That might seem difficult in the aftermath of another crushing loss to Wake Forest, which has won 10 in row against the Devils and again found the offensive fortitude to pull away in the second half.
The Demon Deacons (5-7, 3-5) led 21-17 at halftime and outscored the Devils 24-17 in the second half. Wake was led by a commanding performance by senior quarterback Riley Skinner, who completed 28 of 38 pass attempts for a career-high 372 yards and a school-record five touchdowns in his final collegiate game.
Skinner, who helped his team snap a five-game losing streak, closed his career with a school-record 9,762 passing yards and 60 touchdowns. One of the ACC's most accurate passers, he finished his career with completion percentage of 66.9, just shy of the league record held by Matt Schaub (67 percent).
Against the Devils, Skinner appeared in full command of his passing talents, buying time in the pocket and delivering clutch passes to keep drives going. In the third quarter, he found junior Marshall Williams behind the secondary on a 49-yard pass play. Covering on the play, Duke's Leon Wright forced Williams to fumble on the 2-yard line, though Williams recovered the ball for a touchdown.
Skinner, who picked apart Duke's secondary, was credited with the touchdown pass because the same receiver who fumbled the ball recovered it.
"We're going to miss him a lot," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe said. "He's a pretty special guy and a guy that's special in so many ways other than being a great player. He's going to leave our business school with a degree. Obviously, he's a great player, but even better he's a great practice guy, great in the weight room, a great character guy. You go all the way down the list and check them all, he's as good as it gets."
Cultcliffe said Duke's defensive line, despite the return of senior defensive tackle Vince Oghobaase, failed to pressure Skinner and gave up too many deep balls to be successful. He said they didn't find a way to stop a Wake Forest offense that gained 499 yards of total offense.
Still, Cutcliffe said he was encouraged as he looks two to five years down the road, considering he allowed 20 freshmen to redshirt.
"I'm not going to let the game today ... diminish what these guys have done in their two years with us to set the program up to move forward," Cutcliffe said. "You could taste that 6-6 and taste that opportunity. I know our team could. We felt very confident at halftime. Very confident."
But he said the Devils didn't have the necessary mentality to take the game from the Deacs after pulling to 35-27 with nine minutes remaining.
Though the Devils produced three victories over ACC teams this season - N.C. State, Maryland, Virginia - they were unable to snatch games from tougher teams in critical moments, something players and coaches said will be the concentration in the future.
"We had great effort this year," Oghobaase said. "Some of the ball games we just couldn't close and couldn't finish. There are definitely some positive things to build on during the season."
The Devils, however, didn't look for excuses, even though they had several in the form of injuries. They started the season fighting the H1N1 flu that disrupted training camp and then struggled with injuries to key players such as Lewis and Oghobaase and senior running back Re'quan Boyette.
"When you look at the circumstances, a lot of guys were hurt throughout the year - swine flu and things like that - but this team persevered," Lewis said. "If you look at all that, it's a successful season. Who knows the outcome if everyone was able to stay healthy."
Cutcliffe thanked the seniors for embracing his methods and setting an example for younger players.
"They've set a heck of a tempo," he said.
Especially Lewis, who with his performance on Saturday became the 60th NCAA Division I player to pass for 10,000 career yards. He finished this season with 3,330 yards, which ranks second in school history, and finished his career with 10,065.
Lewis sat smiling in the postgame news conference, dressed in his full uniform, looking as though he might not ever take it off.
"I'm going to take it off," he said. "Sometimes when you think about it, I might not want to take off the Blue Devils uniform. But this is it for me, so I do have to take it off."
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