CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Duke University's football program has experienced its share of mind-bending losses down through the years.
On Saturday afternoon at Boston College's Alumni Stadium, the shoe was on the other foot.
With 43 seconds remaining, BC place-kicker Nate Freese attempted a 23-yard field goal attempt that caromed off the left upright and Duke ran out the clock for a 20-19 victory. Earlier in the game, Freese missed a point-after attempt that bounced off the right upright.
"We've been there before; sometimes things end up on the right side for you," Duke coach David Cutcliffe said after the Blue Devils improved to 1-2 overall, 1-0 in the ACC. "[The Eagles] feel horrible right now, and we're singing and celebrating.
"I'd like to sing a lot more."
Cutcliffe was singing the praises of his junior quarterback Sean Renfree, who tied a Duke record by completing 40 passes against the Eagles, a mark he now shares with Thaddeus Lewis. Renfree attempted 52 passes and picked apart the BC secondary, particularly in the second half as Duke dominated possession 21:07 to 8:53 in dropping the Eagles to 0-1 in the ACC and 0-3 overall.
Renfree threw two touchdown passes during the first half, both to Conner Vernon, and scored the go-ahead touchdown himself on a 1-yard dive with 9:57 to play in the game to make it 20-19. Duke's attempt at a two-point conversion failed, but it didn't matter in the end.
The touchdown passes to Vernon covered 53 and 21 yards, respectively, and were Renfree's first and second of the season.
"I think the first two games of the season Sean felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders," Cutcliffe said. "Those touchdown passes certainly helped. He had fun playing today."
Despite Renfree's two scoring passes in the first half, Duke trailed 19-14 at the break. BC scored on a 31-yard pass from Chase Rettig to Tahj Kimble, a 7-yard run by Andre Williams and field goals of 43 and 47 yards by Freese.
Duke completely controlled the second half, however, as Renfree repeatedly found gaps in the Eagles' defense.
"That was our game plan, to throw toward the perimeter, then take shots down the field," Renfree said. "We wanted to put our receivers in space and let them try to run with it."
Donovan Varner was the biggest beneficiary of Duke's strategy with 12 catches for 78 yards. Brandon Braxton had nine catches for 60 yards and running back Juwan Thompson had seven catches for 50 yards. Vernon and Cooper Helfet had six each.
"I don't think there was a breakdown," said Eagles linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had a career-high 23 tackles. "They were chipping on us. When we play that soft coverage, that stuff happens."
Although Duke moved the ball easily against the BC defense in the second half, it had trouble scoring points. On their first possession of the second half the Blue Devils drove 73 yards to the BC 10. On first-and-goal Renfree's pass bounced off Helfet's hands into the arms of Eagles defender Jim Noel.
"It was frustrating not to be able to score," Renfree said. "That's been a problem for us, last season and this season. When you have a long drive you want to put up points."
But while the offense was stalling at inopportune times, the Blue Devils' defense was holding the Eagles' offense in check. Until its final drive of the game, BC managed just three first downs in the second half.
"They didn't give [the Eagles] anything," Renfree said of the Duke defense. "We kept getting the ball in good field position."
Afterward, BC coach Frank Spaziani absolved his kicker and praised Duke's performance.
"They did what they had to do to win," he said. "They came up a point ahead. Congratulations to them."